A Dish for the Soul: Empathy

Dr. Pearcey, a Cognitive Psychologist at the Institute for Spirituality and Health, offers humanity a powerful tool for cultivating empathy.

The world feels more divisive than ever. Whether it’s how to handle COVID-19, the environment, the economy and everything in between, there’s a great deal of polarizing opinions. Yet there’s a fine but distinctive line between having an opinion and holding a grudge against someone for possessing an opposing, alternate viewpoint.

Our newly instated President Biden is palpably aware of the charged air. He asks us to put aside our differences, “uniting to fight the foes we face.” (Source: Vox).

We—a small but powerful pronoun. We are all together; humanity is interconnected in this mysterious life. We affect each other on levels great and small.

The charged air, the divisiveness and polarized opinions with metaphorical haunches raised (and sometimes literal, as we witnessed on January 6th at the Capitol), is fear-based reaction. Underneath the anger and violence is fear and pain. The lashing out is a manifestation of untended to psychological wounds.

Enter Dr. Jeremiah Pearcey, a Cognitive Psychologist at the Institute for Spirituality and Health (www.spiritualityandhealth.org) who offers “education and guidance…helping people reduce stress.” The other week, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., Dr. Pearcey offered a mindfulness meditation to explore the historical moments leading up to the Civil Rights Movement, cultivating a greater understanding and compassion for others and ourselves. The title of the Zoom event: “A Day of Embrace and Peace.”

The idea of embracing the historical moments leading up to King’s famous “I Have a Dream Speech,” of finding peace in the face of tension seems like an unlikely pairing. Yet the wise Dr. Pearcey’s guided meditation is just what the world needs now.

After several cleansing breaths and a reminder to get comfortable, attendees of the conference, myself included, were guided by Dr. Pearcey’s soothing voice to journey with him. We were asked to imagine ourselves in 1619 as Africans suddenly separated from our families, not understanding the language of our captors, chained together on a boat. Our journey continued to a plantation in 1800, where any courage to leave our “owners” was often extinguished by the site of other African Americans strung up on trees—a visual reminder of the dire risk for our freedom. We were even brought to the recent past, our last breaths labored, as George Floyd’s was, letting our capture know, with the little we had left of life, “I can’t breathe.”

Dr. Pearcey’s meditative guidance offered us a powerful tool for cultivating empathy and one that we can use in our daily lives. The prefix EM literally means in and PATHY means feeling. Under Dr. Pearcey’s steady and compassionate guidance, we were able to experience empathy for our ancestors and the victims of systemic racism today.

Did anxiety surface during the meditation? Anger? Hopelessness? Yes, to it all. Yet the mediation allowed a safe space to observe without judgement, to feel without attaching ourselves to the unpleasant emotions.

It is okay to feel uncomfortable in this life. When we practice self-compassion, we are more apt to feel compassion for others. Unity is a by-product of acknowledging our differences and cultivating empathy. When one of us suffers, we are all suffering; when we acknowledge our discomfort, our anxiety, our anger, or our hurt from a place of compassion, true healing can begin—for ourselves and, by extension, the world around us.

Supermarket Sweep Life

There’s an unspoken “Supermarket Sweep” mentality pervading our lives.

            There’s a popular American game show, now in its 10th season, called Supermarket Sweep. The premise involves contestants racing against a timer to acquire “high-dollar goods within their allotted time. The team with the most…[number] of valuable items in their cart wins the $100,000 prize.” (source The Today Show). The appeal of the show is understandable: the rush of adrenaline to get as many items—hopefully more highly-valued than others—into one’s cart in a finite and small window of time (typically 1 minute and 30 seconds).

            The fast-paced game show hosted by the talented and humorous Leslie Jones is, no doubt, entertaining. We may watch, experiencing a hit of dopamine as the contestants race against the clock; we may experience pleasure, living vicariously through the frenzied contestants as they practically leave skid marks, stomping haphazardly through the many grocery aisles.

            Yet somehow, our lives tend to feel like we are no different than those Supermarket Sweep contestants. As a secondary English teacher, I see it with my students: the race to get an assignment in, the rush to read through an essay prompt without taking the time to consider the prompt itself. As a mother, I’ve witnessed the Supermarket Sweep mind spinning—no different than the contestants’ carts speeding down aisle after aisle. The mental guessing game of What If thinking, is its own conveyer belt of recycled worry.

            Adults are far from immune to the Supermarket Sweep mindset. Whether it’s the rush to get food on the table or the desperation to install a pool (and everything in between), when we put ourselves on this self-imposed time limit to get things accomplished, we run the risk of a few things:

  1. A lack of self-awareness
  2. Greater physical stress on the body
  3. An affinity for anxiety and/or depression

Without knowing it, I spent a good deal of my young adulthood with the Supermarket Sweep mentality as a steady companion. My cart was regularly filled with items that I didn’t necessarily want but falsely believed I needed to make me feel like a “winner”: the right college, a boyfriend, friends—the key was to have these “things” so that I could feel good. Say yes now was my unexamined mentality. It didn’t matter how I felt about what went into my spiritual cart; all that mattered was that I had put something in there.

I encourage you to consider the items you may be placing in your spiritual cart. Choose them carefully and consider the possibility of removing items that no longer serve you. Your life matters and while we each have an expiration date on this planet, we are not in a race or competition with Time. Care about what goes into your spiritual cart; the only appraiser of value for your cart’s items is you.