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A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with a friend.  He said, “I think that the difficult times in my life have made me a more empathetic person.”

I’ve been going through a somewhat difficult period lately.  I re-aggravated a disc in my spine that seems to be particularly prone to herniation.  Usually my back pain only lasts a week or two, but this time it’s been present in varying degrees for the past two-and-a half months.  This has been extremely frustrating for me.  The pain has caused me to change my entire routine.  Little things, like cleaning my house or making lunch can be really arduous.  Friends I’m used to seeing nearly every day haven’t been seen in weeks because I can’t work out with them at the gym anymore.  Don’t get me wrong, things are improving, but this has definitely been a long “two steps forward, one step back” process, and there are definitely days when I’ve become irritable and less than positive.

My experience makes me think of a workshop I attended last year at AARP Foundation.  The workshop was called “Sensitivity to Aging Issues” and it was hosted by the Macklin Intergenerational Institute.  You can see a sample of the activities from the session in this video:

Basically the workshop walked participants through exercises that allowed them to experience some of the negative effects—both physical and emotional—of aging.  We had the opportunity to internalize how wear-and-tear on the body and loss of people and abilities can change a person’s outlook, sometimes causing them to become, much like me, irritable and less than positive.

To be honest, my current experience with pain is probably doing more to build my empathy than the workshop.  My perspective is improved when I focus on the fact that there are plenty others in this world who are in far worse condition than myself.  However, I think that the workshop caused me and the other participants to be thoughtful and take the time to really explore the experiences and feelings of others—especially those universal experiences that make us all human.  By opening ourselves up to a better understanding of one another, we become less willing to judge one another negatively, and we’re much better able approach each other with kindness and empathy.

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