Picture of Rebecca Lauwers

Rebecca Lauwers is a medical student in the Class of 2019 at McMaster University


Empathy as invited, first. Still it knocks. Waits. Empathy sees the fogged glass but drags no fingertip across it. There is a grey field; can you, too, see suffering like a red coat in the distance, walking? Do not go charging. What is imposed is not empathy. Set the kettle on the stove. Stoke the fire.

Empathy as unattached. As tracking a runaway bride, who knows what it’s like to be in one moment Ready and the next hijacked by fear. Empathy as the lover who will follow anywhere… yet as fluid as the crowd that will part to allow for what must happen. Empathy as the veil acknowledging the ground it grazes, feeling out the terrain as it follows.

Empathy as seeing it all, somehow, at once. Guided by someone whose vision will narrow and widen and narrow, and — somehow — letting each momentary glimpse be the only thing it sees while watching still over shoulders, overhead. Gentle contextualizer; even if invisibly, and inside.

Empathy as action, in time. There is a certain rising up, a certain meeting place where empathy reflects back. Hushed words and winces, soft eyes and slow nods as if to say, Yes, yes… I feel with you. Empathy knows, too, when to avert its eyes and offer space for private composure. So delicate, the listening with feet to floor for that cue, that barely noticed reverberation: the sound of another’s approach.

Empathy as sacrifice. You must be willing to spin on every axis, to go nearer to the sun than you believe is possible and feel its burn in places we perceive invisible aches, impossible ones. Pieces of your own memories, scalding. In empathy, you make your secret pain visible; the anguish you recognize speaks of that which you have known.

Empathy remembers that there are few things more frightening than being confronted with your own self. Knowing this, it stands: the placid lake, a mirror with image on offer, quietly honouring the courage it takes to put your knees to the earth, lean forward and offer a bit of your weight to the air. What if you fall in?

Empathy as humble, ever. As unknowing, while it knows. As able to validate someone’s expression, but to validate more the shared knowing of every expression’s inadequacy. Empathy says, I hear what you can’t say; I hear the felt experience that exists beyond language, and this is why I hold you to nothing.