Embracing Empathy – By Lena Papadopoulos


In renewing our blogging efforts it was decided that along with organizational news and stories we wanted to include meaningful personal content from our team and community. Thank you to JUMP! Program Manager Lena Papadopoulos for openly sharing her experience and insights with empathy and forgiveness.

During my childhood, my father was an alcoholic, involved with drugs, and was emotionally and physically abusive. He would disappear for days at a time, leaving me to comfort my crying mother. More times than I can remember, my mother carried me out of bed in the middle of the night so that we could find a safe place to stay for a few days.  I hated my life as a child; I often wished I had been born into another family. I was consumed by my pain and thoughts of how my family had suffered because of my father’s addictions and all of the horrible things we had to endure. I was forced to be my mother’s emotional support before I even understood what emotion was. I became an adult long before I was ever meant to. I carried profound burdens on my six year old shoulders. I had so much pain that I felt I couldn’t share with anyone; I felt that I had to keep my life a secret. And I hated my father for that, for everything. I spent a great deal of my life overwhelmed by my bitterness toward him.

When I was about 17, everything changed. One day I forgave him. And I was only able to forgive him because I somehow found the ability to be empathetic toward him. I put myself in his shoes. I allowed myself to imagine what life and the world must have looked like through my father’s eyes. I thought about my father’s own childhood and his relationship to his parents. I thought about his marriage and how unappreciated he felt. I thought about the fact that, in his mind, his children only valued him for his financial contribution to their lives. I realized the depth of my father’s insecurities and his feelings of inadequacy. I saw how hard he had worked to build a life for us that he himself had never had. I saw how much stress and pressure those sacrifices had put on him. And truth be told, my father made many, many selfish decisions, but I came to realize that those decisions were a reaction to the lack of appreciation for all of the selfless decisions he had made. And I came to realize how much I am like my father. I began to see that all the qualities I valued most in myself were actually qualities that I had taken from him. I saw him with new eyes; I saw him for who he really is. He is a giving, generous, affectionate, passionate man who helps the people in need around him. He accepts people, he does not pass judgment, and he always chooses to believe that people are good, despite how often they may use him or hurt him.

I realized that my father had hurt us in so many ways because he himself was hurting so badly. He chose to deal with his pain in particular ways, and while I do not agree with many of his decisions or the outlets he used to channel his pain, I cannot hold that against him. We all deal with our hurt and our pain in different ways, and sometimes the only way we know how to deal with it is by hurting the people we love. People protect themselves and their vulnerabilities by building walls and creating defense mechanisms in order to feel safe against all of the possible pain they may experience.  And those walls and defense mechanisms most often manifest themselves in forms that bring pain and damage to others. But accepting and understanding this about the people around us allows us to realize that we are not to blame for the pain that is inflicted upon us. So many children who experience the kinds of things I did come to believe that they somehow deserved those negative experiences and that damaging behavior. They come to feel that they aren’t worthy of love in the future; they unconsciously seek out relationships and interactions that inflict pain because this is what they know and understand; and sadly, this is what they believe they deserve. But there is so much power in the process of empathy and coming to acknowledge and understand why people hurt us. Once I was able to see why my father was the way he was, I was also able to see that his actions were not at all an attack against me as an individual.  I no longer had to see myself as a victim. I was no longer held captive by the mistakes of someone else. And in allowing myself to forgive, I was also able to untie myself from being a victim to my own anger, hatred, and rage.

The walls we build and the defense mechanisms we employ are a means of protecting ourselves because we find it difficult to trust. We find it difficult to trust because we find it difficult to be vulnerable. And we find it difficult to be vulnerable because we are afraid that people will not accept us for who we truly are. This distrust and fear inhibits us from connecting with one another on deep, meaningful levels. But the act of empathy has the power to revolutionize human relationships. If we all took it upon ourselves to practice empathy, we would be more understanding and accepting of the flaws and weaknesses of others.  This, in turn, would allow others to feel more comfortable with their vulnerability. The more people are vulnerable with us, the more able we are to be vulnerable with other people. This reciprocity of vulnerability based on the practice of empathy can lead to stronger relationships and stronger communities of people.

Empathy generates compassion. Truly putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes inspires us to engage with those people in new ways. We feel compelled to act in ways that allow others to feel loved and believe they are worthy of that love. Empathy has the power to create significant social change. Being empathetic leads us to challenge prejudices we have toward others, and it allows us to discover commonalities among people all over the world.  Engaging in empathy and compassion toward people produces within us feelings of love for those people. We begin to be invested in people’s lives in more meaningful ways. One of my favorite things said by Gandhi is this: “Love is the strongest force the world possesses, and yet it is the humblest imaginable.” Perhaps all it takes to begin the process of transforming human relationships and rocking the world with the force of love is for each of us to find one person in our lives and ask, “What does life look like from where you’re sitting?”

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