January 7, 2012

On Running, Pain, and Empathy

On Running, Pain, and Empathy

Day 2 of the OAC Board Retreat. I really love this group. The mission of the Obesity Action Coalition is to “elevate and empower those affected by obesity through education, advocacy and support.”

It’s an interesting exercise to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. I have worked in the field of obesity for over a decade of my life, but having never had a personal struggle with this disease, I can never perfectly understand the challenges faced by  those who do. To work closely with and on behalf of others who face adversities we do not takes empathy.

When you start to develop your powers of empathy and imagination, the whole world opens up to you.
~ Susan Sarandon

I think it is interesting that the whole concept of empathy, the capacity to recognize and share feelings that are being experienced by another, is only about 100 years old. Surely, humans must have felt empathy long before that, but we never had a real word for it – at least not in English. Empathy is distinct from sympathy – though the terms often get confused. Sympathy implies pity, and it is often interpreted as condescending; empathy,  on the other hand, is seen as the first step to real compassion. I love this group of people because, at the end of the day, they are all so very compassionate. You can’t help but to feel a lot of love when you sit for two days in a room full of empathetic, compassionate people.

This morning, I dragged myself out of the warm comfort of my bed here at the hotel in Phoenix, and found the treadmill in the gym. My body did not want to run today. I was up to late, I am sore and tired. Between the dry Arizona air and a bit too much alcohol I was dehydrated and that sort of makes everything feel worse. But I open the door to the gym and there is one of our board members and one of our staffers already working out, and I had to smile a little.

Mostly, I run as a solitary exercise. I have continued to respectfully turn down offers from friends to run with them. When I think of running with others, I feel suddenly more self-conscious, even a bit anxious. I think part of the reason for this is the offers tend to come from friends who are accomplished runners. Maybe what I worry about is that I’ll get sympathy, not empathy.

Running is not a simple, easy, graceful, or joyful experience for me (maybe it will be one day, but not yet). I think I do worry that those friends of mine who are offering to run with me, might pity me more than feel compassion for the place I am at in this process. So I surprised myself a little this morning – it felt good to see some familiar friendly faces when I was not feeling my best. When I might have given up early and only completed half my run, or slowed my pace to a gentle jog, I found instead that I was lifted a bit, and I ended up having a pretty good run despite the way I felt when I got up. Alone, it is easy to give way to our lesser nature – but in the presence of others we are more accountable, we may feel a little more pushed or inspired or motivated to stick with our goals. This is the power of bringing people together – sometimes in in pairs or groups or crowds we can do more and do better than we can do alone.

It’s a balance, I suppose – the fine line between wanting the pleasure of a solitary pursuit and the support or empathy of compassionate, like-minded others. Maybe as humans we need both and the trick is learning which benefits us most in our time of need. Today, I am feeling more open to exploring this from a new perspective. Having spent years of my life volunteering and working on behalf of others, maybe it’s time to ask the question – are there ways that others can help me?

Happy Saturday from Phoenix.



Leave a comment
  1. JamesZ
    January 7, 2012 at 5:37 pm #

    Excellent post! I like the accountability angle.

    • Jacqueline Jacques
      January 7, 2012 at 5:53 pm #

      Thanks James – and most especially for helping me show up and run!


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