Empathy is not agreement. It’s about understanding.

Nashater Deu Soheim

The doctor confirmed what I suspected: tendinitis in both shoulders. Then he proceeded to explain what a tendon was, and how the shoulder joint was different from the wrist – as though I’d never heard the basics of anatomy, much less work as a movement instructor for a living.

I told him about the stress I’ve been under, about the daily Ashtanga and diagnosed shoulder impingement. He responded by reminding me of how old I am.

Now I’m trying to put my ego in check: it really is kind of him to take the time to explain to his patients how their bodies work. To remind them aging means to suck it up when it sucks.

I think it’s difficult not to err on one side or the other: to take in the forest as a whole or to see only each tree.

So why did I overreact? Why was I offended? What was it I wanted from him?

It certainly wasn’t a rudimentary anatomy lesson and an explanation for how to google for shoulder exercises for old people.


There’s an eye exercise where you focus on a glass pane, then focus on what is behind it alternately. It’s difficult. It makes my eyes ache afterward.

I’ve been thinking about this for a couple of days now, actually. As a metaphor – how it relates to social media, and social bubbles. How it relates to families and congregations and high school cliques, and trying to loosen the bonds without aiming to break them.

How it relates to all social relationships, really. These knotty, woven messes of damage and repair.

The U.S. election results surprised me and I found myself reading a wider range of news sites for a couple of weeks. I found myself reading my Facebook feed from a slightly different perspective.

And I deactivated my account.

Since then I’ve noticed some strange habits that I was completely unaware of – like an urge to share an article before I’ve read it to the end. Like failing to take the time to take a step back from the moment I recognize a shared belief in order to question the validity of that belief – which is something I’ve always thought reading helped me do.

But I see that my social media habit has become an activity where I sort people and products and cement my feelings of belonging: my identity. Not only have I abandoned contemplation for “interaction”, I’ve moved away from a practice of empathy by narrowing my field of vision as to make it virtually unnecessary.

Pun intended.

I began asking myself if I were reading (read: skimming) articles to pass them along as a performative act, rather than out of genuine intellectual curiosity. It’s an uncomfortable question to sit with.


Last week one of my students asked if we could continue the “debate” we’d been having the week before. I was taken aback. I thought we’d been having a discussion. In my mind, if not per definition, people win or lose debates. People listen with the goal of finding points of attack, to counter and dominate.

This lead me to try to initiate a discussion about critical thinking, which is at the heart of our national curriculum. I told them about a recent podcast I heard where researchers talk about how people who learned critical thinking skills almost always applied them first as weapons, rather than applying them to personal reflection. I pointed out that is not what we want to teach.

Then I remembered a book I bought at a conference over a decade ago: Peace Journalism. Now sold out and out of print. The gist of the book was to encourage journalists not to use war terminology and violent language in their headlines: “Obama attacks […]”, “Obama takes jab at […]”. These were headlines from this week. A google search (replace Obama with another name) will help you sort a publisher’s political leanings quickly.

I’ve been asking myself how I frame my thoughts. Which metaphors I’m using. Which expletives. Funny how the one we often use when we are angriest with another person, is a word that epitomizes intimacy.


They say we teach what we need most to learn ourselves, and sometimes I feel sorry for my students. I can’t be sure if I am seeing reflections of myself in their words, or whether I’m projecting my more unhelpful habits onto them. It’s probably a little of both, because that is what it is to be human, isn’t it?

The Buddhist teacher I read and listen to talks often about the need for spiritual seekers to be silent – to retreat from the world to focus on their spiritual growth. And this still makes no sense to me. Not within the context of my understanding of the world, of death, and of impermanence.

I believe empathy exists not as an idea, but as a practice. And every practice is in the moment, and within the context of only that moment.

I believe that it would be possible to gain an understanding – empathy – for the beetles and the shrubs of the earth, all by myself on a mountain top. And maybe that practice would lead to my being able to have an understanding of other people when I returned. But I think my ego – my mind -would do better to be surrounded by differing minds, differing opinions, differing moralities. And not silent, with a certainty of someone else’s meaning, but questioning. To discuss, not debate.

But what is the goal of understanding? Isn’t the point to embrace – to hold with care – each individual tree, and the entire forest?

As hard as that is. As painful.


Pain-killers. That’s what I wanted from the doctor.
And that’s what I didn’t get.

Damn. (Yeah, no. That’s not nice, or solution-oriented.)

Wine.