From Character Building to Empathy Building


When I was younger, every time something challenging happened to me, I considered it a character-building experience. This included difficult work situations, problems with relationships, or a series of unlucky breaks. I reminded myself that each was a learning experience that taught me something about myself, and provided me with tools for dealing with similar situations in the future. These challenges taught me how to communicate more effectively, how to bounce back from failure, and how to become more comfortable with uncertainty.

After a series of particularly difficult situations, I would joke that I’d would be happy to have fewer “character-building opportunities.”

As I’ve gotten older, my perspective has changed. I now realize that every challenge that I face is not only an opportunity to build my character, but also an opportunity to gain empathy for others.

My pains and disappointments are a mere shadow of what others face everyday. When my body hurts, I remember that there are lots of people who are suffering terribly from incurable illnesses. When I feel sad, I remember that so many people suffer from unrelenting depression. And when I’m disappointed, I remind myself that there are lots of people who are enduring circumstances that are horribly disheartening.

I also remind myself that there’s a big difference between pain and suffering. Pain or loss in our life is objective, while suffering is subjective — in our mind. We often can’t change what’s happening to us, but we can change our reaction to it. By seeing our difficult experiences as transitory, and/or relative to those who are enduring more, the suffering can be diminished. As an old friend used to say, “pain is just a feeling that hurts.”

This week I’m dealing with a painful pinched nerve in my neck. A visit to the physical therapist drove home the lesson that so many people are dealing with physical pain. The office was filled with those who were recovering from injuries, surgery, and age-related infirmities. My pain is not unique, but part of the fabric of the human condition.

As a young person, everything is about us — our own needs, our own desires, and our own challenges — and the disappointments we face feel so personal. With age we gain some perspective. It becomes clear but most people are struggling with something. Some of those struggles are easily visible, like a broken leg or a black eye, while most reside deep below the surface. I love the lyrics from a Red Hot Chili Peppers song: “Scar tissue that I wish you saw….” This line always reminds me that we never really know what’s going on with someone else.

Our own pains and disappointments are a gateway to understanding and appreciating the pains and disappointments of others, and a reminder that:

We should treat everyone as if they have a “broken heart,” because they probably do.

Yes, each challenge we face presents us with the opportunity to develop tools for coping with similar challenges in the future. But, it also provides an opportunity to experience and appreciate the world from others’ perspective.