Is empathy crucial to friendship? Can you have a true relationship with someone who doesn’t fully enter into your joys and your sorrows?
This was the question around our Shabbos table a few weeks ago – with mixed response. While the consensus was that every relationship is different and each friend connects with you in a unique way and provides something that isn’t available elsewhere, most people felt that a friendship that lacked empathy was missing a component.
We use the term “thought-provoking” cavalierly but this question actually made me think. Am I empathic? Are my friends? Does it matter to me?
The third question was the easiest to answer. Yes it does matter. And empathy is not as easy as you think; we don’t experience or express it as frequently as we would like.
Rare and precious is the friend who experiences your pain like his or her own, who holds your hand at the hospital and sheds tears at your side. If you are lucky enough to have a friend like that, cherish them. Hold on tightly and don’t let go. It’s a tremendous gift, not to be taken for granted.
What kind of friend are we? Do we behave the way we’re expecting them to?
Everyone is busy; their own life is much more real to them. And before we feel frustrated or annoyed, before we rush to condemn, we need to do a little introspection. What kind of friend are we? Do we behave the way we’re expecting them to?
It’s not only during times of pain and challenge that we want empathy. Our joy is much less intense if it is not shared. We want true empathy for the happy moments as well. We want a friend who never “burns out” on our joy, never treats our special moments cavalierly or imagines that because something good occurred last week, this week’s good is less significant.
But frequently it’s treated as such. Let’s say you have a “bunch” of children. Was there more excitement for the first child? Were they much less enthusiastic about #4? What many of us fail to appreciate is that, for that parent, #4 is just as exciting and precious as #1, that none of the children are taken for granted and that all are equally appreciated.
That rare and empathic friend gets this and enters into your joy with fully and genuine enthusiasm. This is just as rare, if not more so, than the one who is able to experience your pain. And this is just as necessary.
This also applies in many areas. Your third child getting accepted to the college of his choice is no less of a relief and pleasure for his parents than when the first one did. The same goes for jobs, marriages, grandchildren – it’s a never-ending list and the bar is high.
It’s hard work being a truly empathic friend. Perhaps that’s why they’re so uncommon.
But this is really where true empathy resides; in the ability to treat each celebration like it’s the first. We’re lucky if we have one friend that does that for us (two is off the charts!). And we’re even luckier if we can be that friend who does it for someone else.