Muscle Memory and Empathy


Muscle Memory and Empathy

The other night my husband and I were sitting in our bedroom looking out the window star gazing. Our discussion revolved around empathy. We were discussing the development  of our empathetic responses to one another. We were tussling with the question of why some persons have seemingly more empathy than others. My conclusion without research was that empathy is much like a muscle. Muscles have memory; this concept of memory is a procedural development connecting the cognitive ability to improve through practice of a particular activity using certain muscles (Lifehacker n.d.). These muscles strive to make the most efficient use of motion in order to help proficiency and perfection of the intended activity. The brain, as I understand, will naturally make the most efficient pathways to process, use, and improve as one practices a particular activity. I propose that empathy, or the act of empathizing happens regardless of practice, but that one acquires proficiency in empathy through the practice of empathizing.

As a hospital Chaplain my job required a highly developed since of empathy. Bracketing my own emotions and judgments allowed me to exercise and practice my ability to empathize regardless of my own state. I began a four-month externship[1] as a hospital chaplain, believing that I possessed the necessary virtues to be empathetic. While the statement is true, I do possess spiritual virtues of kindness, gentleness, courage, and fortitude. I did not possess the knowledge that the needs of others trigger empathy first. The process of practice in empathy generates my ability to offer compassionately any of the spiritual gifts given to me to another in need. Each time I walked into a hospital room, or hung out charting at a nurses station, I was practicing. I contend that this muscle in empathy experienced many changes, both growing and straining. There were moments when the muscle was to thick to bracket my own vision. I quickly learned that the practice thinned and elongated the muscle.  I begin the dissection of this method by first acknowledging that empathy is a thin-skinned muscle.

Empathy as a muscle initiates a tickling inside your brain, an experiential tickle alerting one to connect the present experience to a previous experience. The brainy academic character Sheldon Cooper of the television show “Big Bang Theory” offers a hyperbole as a present example of empathetic response and compassionate behavior upon recognizing the  discomforts or pain of others . Here is a pretend dialogue between Sheldon and his roommate Leonard.

Sheldon, “I will fix you a warm beverage”.

Leonard, “Why”?

Sheldon, “That is what one does when a friend is distressed”.

There are a distinct set of rules for Sheldon that apply to varied situations regardless of any subtle changes in each experience. Sheldon is addressing the need of his friends through a practiced ritual of compassion. Something in the prior conversation or actions with Leonard, tickled the empathy muscle causing Sheldon to begin a compassionate ritual of comfort. His comforting response, although stilted, promotes the care that helps others to work on their discomfort or pain. Each encounter that generates a tickle deepens one’s ability to recognize the need for empathy and stretches the muscle. As the muscle lengthens, the proficiency in pathways lead one to experience empathetic vision. The pathway for this muscle alters  vision causing the focus to center through the lens of someone in need.

A tickle is hard to ignore; recognition is the key to feeling and knowing when to respond with empathy. Empathy by definition and action may be taught, such as with Sheldon.  However, for most of us the internal response to an empathetic tickle leads to practice empathy stretching the muscle in practice and discovering that with practice empathy is waiting to lead compassion to action.

[1] Externship is similar to an internship. It is a short training in a particular field of study.

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My Thoughts in CPE

I speak confidently when I pray to God for guidance in my ministry. I am for almost all purposes a caregiver, seeking guidance from God, my CPE supervisor, CFP supervisor, and my extern team, as a care-seeker. I find this situation somehow very comforting. For most of my life, I have not recognized the importance of care giving and care seeking. The definition of importance has evolved for me; I have grown in recognizing important to mean working in relationship with others to address the spiritual and inter-relational reasons placing me in a position to visit, listen, and emphatically respond. I think it is important to recognize that I have a gift, a beautiful God given gift, which shines light from my relationship with God and God’s existence in me. If I truly believe that my relationship with God guided me to this ministry in Chaplaincy, then I must believe that God would not abandon me in this ministry. Knowledge that God is with me opens up the possibility of forming a reality that this ministry is joy fulfilling.

I have spent my time wisely these past four months reflecting about my formation as a Catholic, Christian, academic, and chaplain. I was confident from the beginning of my natural ability to establish rapport; however, I did know I might have some difficulty with assessing my own bias, and the wordless expressions in body language that telegraph these feelings. My complete attention and presence to a care seeker has been enhanced through my opportunity to reflect on my own theological process, biases, and the twirling wheel of emotions that accompany loss. This has revealed many stabilizing supports in the tools that I am gathering and developing in methods of communication. I have empathy that emerges through my natural existence and state. Compassion, I have learned, goes hand in hand with my ability to relate to others. Because of CPE, I have a vocabulary to put with ideas and interactions. My compassionate actions are a gift that I am learning to use quietly, with reverence for others, so that I may assess their feelings. A paradigm shift has occurred in my thinking and behavior.

Regardless of the paradigm shift, other truths must be at work in order for me to feel the connection with God through ministering in a medical setting. What I have come to know (epignosis) is that I am to be myself in this ministry. I am a faulted individual with a few idiosyncratic behaviors and thoughts. But, it is those very thoughts that allow me to be me. My uniqueness shapes the way in which I am able to respond. Each individual that I am to be present to and possibly minister to offers a challenge for me. My need is to overcome my fear, and trust that I fulfill my promise to the Holy Spirit of passing along the Lord’s compassion in gifts given. I choose to be a Chaplain that has the personal authority to listen, to reflect, and to respond with compassion. It is the compassionate choice to be with patients, family, and staff. The compassion, however, does not end with what I give, but it is truly in the receiving that my gift given in fullness to others and theirs to me is an offering in glory to God. The fullness of giving and receiving fills my need for joy in living out my mission in ministry. As academically lofty as that sounds, it is just the systematic way that I process relationship in theology. Practical theology tells me that this is a reality, that an imperfect minister is capable of bringing perfect love through emphatic and compassionate conversation. I like the reality of this theological process.

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My Vision Statement for my Mission in Ministry

     My mission is to help heal others and myself. I drew my vision statement because I was unable to interpret my thoughts into sentences. It evolved as I practiced on index cards sketching the rooster and pelican. Both are signs of God’s prominence in the world. Truly, our God understands us, in both forgiveness and need. The rooster’s presence sheds light on my own vulnerability. I am vulnerable to the temptation that minimizes my ability to proclaim my belief in my Lord and Savior, and the promise of eternal life. As I cross the bridge, I am aware that my faith allows me to reconcile my weakness toward what is not good. My own choices separate me from God and community. The Keys of Peter on the bridge remind me that celebration of my faith life happens in community; therefore, my reconciliation is with God on the vertical plane and community on the horizontal plane. I am acutely aware of the rose, which reminds me that the Mother of my Lord rejoiced in his birth, revealed his greatness at Cana, and suffered pains at the foot of the Cross. I have used her example in mercy, humility, and suffering that leads to knowledge and joy. The fish symbolizes my membership among the assembly gathered to celebrate the sacrament of remembrance in the Most Holy Eucharist. The gift of the Eucharistic meal, symbolized by the Pelican plucking her breast and feeding her young, reminds me to be ever cognizant of the meal that sustains me. The three nails symbolize the Sacrifice of my Lord Jesus Christ on the Cross, a ransom for my life. The gift of Holy Spirit may be seen in the brilliant reflection on the water; it is the promise of fullness and truth acting within the Church and community.

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Calm on the Sea of Galilee

Sea of Galilee          I am overwhelmed by responsibility and overburdened by my own hand. But, on the Sea of Galilee at sunset, there is a calm feeling that wraps me in the love of God. It is quiet and peaceful much like the peace I felt when I nursed my children. Comforting sounds surround me as I gently rock back and forth. The water laps up against the boat in a rhythm that is designed to ease. The smell of fresh and clean air fills my senses; joyfully, I take a deep breath. It cleanses my mind and opens my heart, for too often I forget to keep it open. Sunlight shines in beauty through the clouds streaming a warm array of colors in orange, pink, and yellow highlighting the blue sky. As the day slips into night, the warmth penetrates my whole being inviting me to join God and become one in this beauty. Jesus is cooking on the shore; waiting patiently for me to know that he is there. This is a place where I am with Christ, my Lord. I hear his voice and his hand feeds me.
After a long week, I am scattered and often of no use to anyone. When I make the time to rest in him, I feel the promise of his love. With the relief of my daily stress, I refocus my thoughts, and the gifts that I have been given are renewed with vigor. I am ready once again to face my mission. I think of Christ, and desire to walk with him, but I must first place myself in his presence and rest in his mercy and love. I will always return refreshed and collected ready to meet the challenges of my life today.

Today is Good Shepherd Sunday

Psalm 23

The LORD is my shepherd; there is nothing I lack.

In green pastures you let me graze; to safe waters you lead me;

you restore my strength. You guide me along the right path for the sake of your name.

Even when I walk through a dark valley, I fear no harm for you are at my side; your rod and staff give me courage.

You set a table before me as my enemies watch; You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

Only goodness and love will pursue me all the days of my life; I will dwell in the house of the LORD for years to come.

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Dearest Lord,

I bare my heavy heart to you this day. I trust in your goodness and the goodness that is a part of all of humanity. Unite us in this time of sadness and confusion. Please send the Graces to allow us to grieve and mourn, the injured of disasters that have plagued our country this week.  Make us instruments of reconciliation and guide us on the path of Mercy and civility. May we offer aid and comfort to others as we implement justice. Through your gifts we are able to act in freedom and grow in love. Help us to speak up for the innocent and act righteously. May you pierce our hearts with Mercy and Love. In your Holy Name, I humbly ask.


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“There is no pl…

“There is no pleasure at all in eating or drinking unless the pains of hunger and thirst go before”. (St. Augustine, Bk 8 Chap III #7)

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