I’ve had a surprising number of people ask me whether Ms. Supervisor, from last week’s Mystery of the Missing Medication, really had cancer. She was somehow able to find my missing chemotherapy after her underlings had not.
You should know by now that I am not a fiction writer. I do not have the capacity to come up with a complex plot, to develop character, and to bring everything to a neat resolution. I had a near breakdown in high school English when I was tasked with writing a short story. I would draw a similar blank presently if my stories came solely from my imagination. So no, I don’t make this stuff up. I am an observer, and I work with what life tosses my way.
Yes, dear readers, Ms. Supervisor did indeed have cancer. She understood from personal experience how urgently I needed her to resolve my problem. Perhaps her underling, Ms. Making Me Postal, was in the fortunate position of not having had cancer yet touch her life, and that is why she treated me like any other whiner with a missing package.
Do you think people need to experience something themselves in order to empathize with others in their shoes? Do you need to have cancer to understand what my life with cancer is like? No, I don’t believe that. If I did, professionals like me would be out of work.
Over the course of my career, I’ve seen people from all walks of life and with an infinite range of concerns. I can’t possibly have experienced all that my clients have. I counselled parents and I don’t even have children, except the furry kind. Sure, some clients have seen me once and never come back, but others have returned, some even telling me they’ve found our contact helpful. I’d like to believe I’ve shown them empathy despite my narrow life experience.
Occasionally my experience has mirrored that of my client. That client would not know this because I share little with clients, not to be secretive, but to keep the focus on the client’s needs rather than my own. Am I more deeply empathic if my client is discussing issues I’ve confronted in my own life? Maybe but not necessarily. I have to guard against my similar life experience’s distracting me from my client’s.
Empathy is not just for counsellors, my friend. I appreciate empathy in a clothing store because my body is different, and empathy at the supermarket because I move slowly some days. But can empathy be learned if it doesn’t come naturally to you? I think it can, at least to some degree.
I trust Ms. Making Me Postal was not hired for her empathy skills. If I could speak to her again, I would say: “I understand you have certain rules you need to follow, but could you consider how we might resolve my concern promptly? My life depends on it.”
Before I can teach Ms. MMP empathy, someone may need to teach her common sense. Is it a teachable skill? That I’m not so sure.