The Art of Empathy

My husband and I have been watching The Crown on Netflix. It is a depiction of Queen Elizabeth’s life. I’m not as in love with it as I was with Call the Midwife, Madam Secretary or Downton Abbey. But Queen E has grit. Grit impresses me.

The Crown also portrays Winston Churchill. I didn’t know much about him other than loving this quote: 

You have enemies? Good. That means you stood up for something, sometime in your life.

The episode last night wove the story of Churchill being honored at his 80th birthday and having his portrait painted. There was a moment when the portrait artist and Churchill had a vulnerable conversation. 

Churchill lost his daughter, Marigold, at age 2. He said, “We named her Marigold for her long curls,” with taught tears in his voice. He created a pond at his residence in remembrance of his loss. The artist, who had viewed Churchill’s paintings, remarked “You are always painting the pond.” Churchill seemed surprised by this observation. He remarked, “It is so hard to get it right.”

As I went to bed last night, I kept thinking of that line. 

“You are always painting the pond.”

What’s your pond?

How do you paint it?

I think we do go back to our tragic stories and keep painting them. It is not to just to remember but to understand. I use words to “write my pond."

Most of us have more than one tragic story. And likely we circle back to each, like a trained horse in a riding arena. We take one more pass to see what we missed, attempt to protect ourselves from letting it happen again, and to finally “get it right.”

It’s cathartic. Necessary. 

But we can never undo our particular tragedies. We can learn from them, yes. Yet we can never protect ourselves, try as we may. That circumstance will never exactly repeat itself so self-protection will never be quite the correct armor. Our efforts to finally, “get it right,” are in vain. The tragedy did not occur solely because we made a mistake. Our lives bear too much complexity for that to be true. 

If those things are accurate, what can be the beauty forged in circling the pond again?


Empathy for others, yes. But empathy for ourselves most of all. My definition of empathy is:

The art of experiencing emotions that match another person's emotions, thoughts and feelings.

That sounds odd when we are speaking of ourselves. Because empathy is usually spoken of in regards to identifying with another person’s feelings.

I dare say, that when we are in trauma, in pain, we become “other.” We become fragmented, not connected to our body, mind, and soul. Somewhere we become divorced from the experience in order to survive it. 

In that manner, we ARE experiencing “another person’s emotions,” because we have not let that part of us be integrated into a cohesive self. 

I have been in the presence of individuals capable of experiencing emotions alongside me. It is indeed an art. The tender effect is that I feel known, loved, and like I belong. 

I hope, that each of us, can grow in capacity to practice the “art of empathy” for ourselves. May our fragmented selves be welcomed home to be known, loved and to belong within our skin.