Warning: The following content contains sensitive material about suicide.
I used to believe that empathy was the key to unity without understanding what it meant.
So in my sophomore spring I did Empathy, Assistance, and Referral Service training, the on-campus peer counseling system, and last week I attended the first meeting of Education 2610, also known as Intergroup Dialogue Project.
In EARS training and in IDP, we did active listening exercises in pairs. One person would talk for three minutes without the other responding. Then, the listener would reflect back what they’d heard in those three minutes. And after that was over, we switched places.
We reflected on how good it felt when someone actively listened to you. How it was relieving to speak without fear of being judged or questioned and to talk about emotions without feeling the need to defend them. I left EARS training each week feeling refreshed.
I went out in the world determined to be a better listener and a better friend. I’d try out the skills I learned in our sessions: I asked open-ended questions, made strong eye contact and encouraged people to discuss their difficulties. And I thought that if I showed my empathy consistently enough, maybe someone would do the same for me.
So I listened intently to both the good and the bad in my friends’ lives. I was a shoulder to cry on at 3 a.m. I became engrossed in the details of a friend’s experiences abroad. I sat with another in the middle of Buffalo Street one night, trying to comfort them enough for them to come back home.
And though I sat through all sorts of conversations waiting for the time when it’d be my turn to discuss my feelings, that time never came. Unlike the active listening exercises in the classroom, we never switched places. Pretty soon, I knew so much more about my friends than they cared to know about me.
They’d FaceTime me to complain and get angry at me when I didn’t pick up. I was always expected to be there for them, but they felt no need to be there for me.
Gradually, I came to a sobering realization: If it feels so good to be heard, like we learned in IDP and EARS, why would anyone ever want to listen? Without the equal structure of the classroom, my friends would talk, cry, laugh and yell at me for as long as I would listen.
Still, foolhardily, I pressed on. I practiced the art of perspective-taking. I tried my best to look at everything from another’s viewpoint. I listened as they complained about their own lives and complained about the lives of everyone else. I heard them justify themselves and condemn others.
And I guess I got so good at examining life from others’ perspectives that I began to lose sight of my own. I’d dedicated so much of my time to listening and understanding other points of view that I began to lose my own sense of right and wrong. I lost the principles by which I’d always tried to live my life.
And as long as I sat listening, no one asked me to rediscover those principles. It can be so addictive to have someone else understand you that you forget that others also want to be understood.
The longer I actively listened, the more lost I felt. Because empathy isn’t about critical thinking. It’s not about evaluating an argument, applying it your own life or testing out your value systems. Empathy is simply about being present for someone else. And you can end up being present for someone else for so long that you’re no longer there for yourself.
Empathy is great in a world that exists in willing reciprocity. It’s great in a controlled, classroom setting where everyone has an equal opportunity to learn and practice it. But they didn’t teach me that outside of the classroom it would be so exhausting to be an active, empathetic listener. I’ve grown tired of listening to the same people complain about the same problems with no intention to address them. And I’m sick of those who want to be heard but don’t want to listen. Because I think I’m running out of empathy to give.
One week in EARS training we went around the circle practicing how to ask someone if they were considering suicide. No one in my life asked me that question when I needed it. Now everyone just wonders how I came to be so indifferent.
Students may consult with counselors from Counseling & Psychological Services by calling 607-255-5155. Employees may call the Faculty Staff Assistance Program at 607-255-2673. An Ithaca-based Crisisline is available at 607-272-1616. For additional resources, visit caringcommunity.cornell.edu.
Colton Poore is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Help Me, I’m Poore runs every other Monday this semester.