Intellectualizing vs. feeling deeply: a chance to re-connect with empathy / by Michael Sloyer

As I begin my journey back to Ghana, I can’t help but think this is an opportunity to reconnect with my emotions. This is my chance to reconnect with my heart, with my spirit, and with my feelings of oneness towards other human beings in this world. A chance to not only intellectually remember, but a chance to truly feel deeply what all that hard work putting together charity events and fundraising campaigns actually means.

But, to be honest, I am scared. I am scared not that anything bad will happen to me in Ghana, or that the kids won’t like me, or that the living conditions or the food won’t be satisfactory. Those all may be true, but they are not what I am really scared of. I am scared that I don’t have the capacity to truly feel deeply the pain and suffering of what others experience in their lives. I have a fear of failure in my emotional range...in being able to experience true empathy and compassion. In a life where I have been successful in most areas that I have put some effort into, I can’t really say the same thing about my emotions.

Whether it be with good friends who might be going through a tough moment in their lives or with complete strangers who are less fortunate in terms of being able to afford life's necessities, it is often not my first or my natural instinct to feel their pain. And naturally, if I can’t feel their pain, it is almost impossible to be with their pain and be there for them emotionally in the way that they may need it. And I feel very ashamed about this.

To be clear, true empathy is very different than doing good for others and trying to make the world a better place. Taking action, being involved in philanthropy, and being a champion for those that cannot help themselves, have always been important to me. Once a need is articulated, and I find myself with the motivation, resources, and time to take it on, I can be a huge do-er of good. But this is precisely not what I am talking about.  

In fact, my fear of failure when it comes to my own empathy is only exacerbated by the fact that I do do good in this world. How could I be a champion for those whom I have never met, but I often can’t meet the emotional needs of my close family and friends? Am I an emotional fraud?  Do I have a heart of stone to be able to look someone in the eye and ask them to donate to a cause when I don’t feel the feelings at that exact moment that most people probably do when they are doing acts of kindness? Could I only be doing it to satisfy the needs of my own ego or to quench my never ending thrist for external validation? Or am I just hoping to fake it until I make it? Maybe if I do enough good, I will start to feel the same feelings that most “good” people usually do? Yes, lots of cognitive dissonance and issues regarding identity going on here. My actions paint one picture of me. My internal feelings another. And it eats me up inside every day.

I would be being too hard on myself if I said that I never experienced empthy. I do have my moments. During a meditation or after a good workout when the endorphins are flowing, I might get that fleeting feeling of how difficult it must be not to have equal educational opportunities, or not be able to feed your family, or to be discriminated against becuae of race, religion, or gender. During these moments, I really get it. I deeply feel it. I know it, even though I myself am not going through it. I guess, this is what true empathy is. And it is often from those fleeting moments that my longer lasting desire to do good comes from. After feeling the feeling once, even only if for a split second, I can “intellectualize” the feeling, “storing” and “preserving” it so I can talk about it and take action based on it. The feeling may be gone, but somehow, the inspiration remains. So, a few weeks later, when I am talking to a potential donor or spending endless hours negotiating rates for my photography supplies, my motivation perserveres.

I am not saying that I shouldn’t be taking action based on feelings that are “intellectualized” rather than “felt.” But it would represent a big step on my journey of emotional growth if I can somehow find a way to reconnect more frequently and more deeply with the original feelings that got me here in the first place.

So maybe that is what this Ghana trip is all about. A chance to un-intellectualize and re-emotionalize my emotions. A chance to drop the ego, a chance to drop the talk about how much money we raised, a chance to drop my own story about how much hard work I have done...a chance to finally be there with the people who need a smlie and a hug more than anything else.