Beyond Learning to Breathe

It’s not every day that a dozen people faint while listening to Radiolab. Or that a podcast begins by warning you not to listen if you’re driving or operating machinery.

In “The Heartbeat,” Radiolab’s live audience learns of a woman who undergoes major heart surgery. She is thankful for her full recovery, but is distressed to discover that her post-operative heartbeat is so strong that people standing near her in a quiet room can hear the thumping of her beating heart. At the end of the episode they try to understand why several Radiolab audience members fell ill or fainted during the performance. The answer, I think, has to do with the audience’s natural response to empathy.

Listen to Heartbeat Here.

Even now it’s hard for me to listen to minutes 13:00–17:30 without feeling a tightness in my chest and a slight shortness of breath as the sound of her beating heart and the music intensify. And yet, I was also surprised by an internal revelation the first time I listened this episode. Somehow I was automatically able to flip an internal switch that kept me breathing normally at just that moment when several others apparently began to faint.

I was surprised to discover I have an automatic reflex that enabled me to escape this momentary crisis by de-activating my own body’s natural response to empathy.

This brought to mind that time I was tightly duct taped and bound head-to-toe to a plank of wood. In fact, it was blue Tyvek tape used for construction and which, in my experience, is stronger than duct tape. I learned this after defying the tradition of the lumber yard where I had just started a summer job. Tradition there required all new employees to buy donuts for everyone or risk being taped to a wooden board and left out back.

Being young and dumb, I didn’t buy donuts. So I got taped full-body to a board and lifted into the air by a forklift while shouts rose up from several feet beneath me. I was then driven to the back of the yard where the board was lowered to the ground and I was left there alone.

Listening to Radiolab I remembered that moment of near panic, taped so tightly around my chest that I couldn’t fully inhale. I remember consciously turning off my ability to identify with my own momentary crisis and to assume an almost out-of-body detachment from myself to avoid a panic attack, hyperventilating, or worse.

The ability to not have too much concern for yourself in a moment of crisis is a useful survival tactic. Suppressing self-empathy is what you do when your goal is to stay alive.

Suppressing empathy for myself has saved my life on at least this one occasion. But it’s now the reflex I am working hard to unlearn.

It may be hard to see how this useful, even life-saving reflex could be a problem, or how it could be an impediment to growth.

Well I first learned this reflex early in life when experiencing the real impact of poverty: having to adapt to an ongoing series of crises that come from never having quite enough. Growing up poor I had to learn to suppress my concern for myself in the midst of these spiraling problems. But this suppression easily morphed into a more pervasive, even allergic avoidance of weakness and vulnerability more generally.

My avoidance of weakness would show up in other settings where it wasn’t helpful. Consider, for example, the pain of public speaking. If I mistake the discomfort of speaking publicly as a crisis, then my survival reflex turns what could be a moment for growth into a moment to simply grit my teeth and soldier on. If I’m in crisis mode, the suppression of self empathy says, “This is about to be unpleasant, so let me lower my head, memorize my lines, and power through.” (Apologies to anyone who has had to listened to me speak when I’m in this mode.) But when I approach the challenge with more empathy for myself, I discover that there’s a lot to learn from even the painful aspects of the experience, lessons that ultimately make it less painful.

See, when I’m not paying attention to my natural reflexes, I can easily mistake a growth opportunity as a moment of crisis or a weakness to be suppressed. Once the reflex to suppress self-empathy is learned, it’s very hard to retrain your brain to see a momentary crisis not as a weakness to be ignored but as an opportunity for growth.

Simply put, it’s hard to grow without empathy for yourself.

Empathy is the ability to personally identify with someone else’s challenges. It’s not the “Aw, poor baby” of dispassionate sympathy. Nor is it merely stepping in to offer a solution. Empathy involves an acknowledgment of someone’s humanity, vulnerability, and need. It enables us to say, “I see you and I feel your pain. How can I meet you in that pain?”

Empathy for oneself is related. Making the choice to grow and not just to survive often requires anticipating and asking for the help you’re going to need along the way. When we believe there’s no hope of overcoming the present challenge, all that’s left is survival, and relating to one’s own needs is no longer needed. In times of personal crisis, loss of empathy for our own pain is one of the earliest casualties we suffer. The ability to disengage from one’s own natural response to a crisis can truly be a useful survival reflex, but that reflex is not at all easy to unlearn or deactivate. Suppressing empathy for oneself can also suppress the ability to grow. Knowing how to escape a crisis is great when it’s actually a crisis. Otherwise, it may just be avoidance.

If your goal is to grow and not just survive, a lack of self-empathy can severely limit the self-awareness that learning requires.

I’ve found that this can also translate into the suppression of concern for others. That goes something like, “Why should I have more tolerance for your mess than I have for my own?” or “Suck it up and keep it moving.” Now that I’m a dad, I’m learning that parenthood requires a high tolerance for other people’s mess — literally and figuratively — and it demands we parents see our children’s weaknesses (and our own) as opportunities for growth. As a father it’s not always helpful to have a “suck it up and keep it moving” response to a challenging situation.

Now Is a Time for Empathy

I live in a city and in a nation that seem nearly on fire with the pain of people experiencing persistent crises, uncertain whether anyone cares. The #blacklivesmatter and #ICantBreathe campaigns are examples of people in crisis calling on others to care. As these social movements march on, I still feel the shame of standing in a silent crowd of onlookers near the slain body of a black teenage boy shot in the back in the middle of a summer day, just around the corner from the Chicago home where my wife and I are raising our two kids and three blocks from where the President and First Lady raised theirs.

Whether for ourselves or for others, a lack of empathy is ultimately the unwillingness to permit weakness or vulnerability in others or ourselves. By suppressing empathy we simply press onward as if that weakness did not exist. But without the ability to connect to people’s struggles — even our own — we cannot hope to grow, individually or as a nation.

Growing amid the mess of real life brings forth many moments of crisis, moments when we can’t fully breathe. Like many of you, I’m committed to growing. Which means I’m also interested in learning how to have more empathy for myself. In turn, with greater self-empathy we can all learn to meet other people in the midst of their own real pain, vulnerability, and weakness.

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