I like to think of myself as a very empathetic person. I felt the pain my grandmother felt when she lost her husband of over 30 years and ended up collapsing in the funeral home of heart trouble and immediately brought to a local hospital. For years after, she wore a necklace with a picture of my grandfather cast in gold, and she kissed it at every holiday. I worried over the surviving adults and children from 9/11 and the tsunami, and really any major catastrophe I read about in the newspaper. Those bad turns could just as easily happened to me, and sometimes I would feel so depressed that it WAS like it had happened to me.
But in day-to-day life, I don't do much with this empathy. I don't volunteer (although I did apply to help seniors through a company called Springwell, but I haven't heard back from them yet). I hardly make eye contact on the street, and if someone was publicly distraught, I would feel relief if SOMEONE ELSE stepped in to help.
Just the other day, an old lady whom I see in the neighborhood where I work was attempting to cross the busy avenue. She was hunched over her walker, shuffling slowly into harm's way as the light was about to turn against her. I wonder why I don't see more people these days helping old ladies (or old men) cross the street. I hesitated, then shyness and fear gripped me and I kept on walking. What if I tried to help her and she got angry? What if I scared her off, a stranger approaching her and grabbing her arm? So I did the shameful thing and walked away. That's why I don't help old people across the street--I'm too caught up in my fear, my discomfort at entering a stranger's world.
From what I'm learning about Buddhism, the practice of Tonglen is a meditation on your own suffering and the suffering of others. You accept your own suffering but also take on others' pain, too. In that way, you're helping bring peace and loving-kindness into the world. The famous example Pema Chodron uses is a man who's beating his dog. You feel empathy for the dog who is being beaten but also for the man, and then for all the dogs that suffer in this world and the men who are also in pain. I have trouble with this notion. How can you just walk by when an animal is being abused right in front of you? How is feeling the dog's pain actually helping the dog in that moment? I consider myself an animal lover, I'm a member of the MSPCA, and live with a cat. I don't think I could just take in the pain of the dog and the owner without also trying to intervene. Hopefully in this instance I would set aside my fear and jump in. My Buddhist friend J. says that I can take some lessons from Buddhism and some lessons from my Catholic upbringing (I'm no longer a member of the church, but I was raised in the Catholic faith). That is, I feel the suffering of both dog and man, but I also reach out to try and help the man see how he is hurting another living creature.
Empathy is important, but action is vital, and that's something I definitely need to work on.