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40k for 40 days

February 22: Day 37

Day 37 - How Recognizing, Understanding, and Feeling Empathy for Others can Connect to and Affect Peace

The opposite I suppose is not to feel any empathy, (with its various components) for others and it's very clear that there are many people out there who struggle to feel full empathy towards and with others and we are all familiar with what this can lead to and how much hurt and harm this can cause.

Today was another monumental part of my journey of exploring inner and outer peace while attempting to move and reflect on themes that I feel connect to peace. I decided to take drastic measures to get as close as possible to achieving the original aspiration of moving 40ks for days, 1600 kilometers while connecting to MLK's 40 Days of peace Challenge. 

Although it's day 37 and things have been going well so far, I'm aware that I will be traveling home to Ireland on day 38 and will remain there until day 40.

I don't know if I will have access to a set of manually pushed wheels or not and so I did three rounds of 40ks today and I loved it!

I have so much gratitude for being able to take on this challenge and know for a fact that just a short 37 days ago, I would not have been physically or mentally able to move this distance in one day and be able to function afterward. Step by step and perseverance pays off and can lead to peace, I believe it more every day.

I cycled with a friend this morning to the mountains of Madrid while chatting about today's reflection theme of empathy and we had some great conversation and insight as we moved close to 100 kilometers. We remarked at one point, along the toughest part of the cycle that it was remarkably easy to have empathy for, and with our fellow cyclists today as we were all either hurting or about to hurt on the pedals due to the severeness of many of the hills, but we were also able to feel a sense of empathic joy for those who were flying down the same hills that we were ascending. Seeing the smiles on their faces and being happy for them, instead of feeling envious or jealous.

In fact, we went on to remark that it was clearly more energizing and fuelling for us to feel joy for others when they were experiencing joy, instead of either not feeling joy for them or even less and feeling jealous. Our secret ingredient of the cycle that we don't hear so much about when it comes to empathy, as we usually seem to focus on having empathy when others are suffering only.

I then, connected with my family, refueled, carried out some meetings for my work, and jumped back on the bike on two more occasions, to trash out as many more kilometers indoors, as I could manage before the day was out.

I do intend to come back to empathy in my blog tomorrow and how important I feel it is to link with compassion for others and of course they are both clearly and strongly linked together. There is a lot spoken about and even researched into empathy and there are many different interpretations of how we view it, feel it, and act upon it.

I tend to think about empathy as having three different components, the head or cognitive empathy where one can attempt to understand what another might be going through or experiencing in each situation. We hear folks talk about being able to put yourself in the shoes of others and that is this cognitive or understanding empathy. 

The next component is the feeling with another person when they are going through something difficult or something more joyous, where it resonates with you. So, you feel a bit of what another person is feeling and have affective empathy towards them. 

The final component of empathy for me is the agency piece, what do I decide to do or not to do based on cognitive and affective empathy? We can maybe refer to this as active empathy.

There are many examples out there in our world which again we may be very aware of, where we see others being able to understand what is going on and so they have cognitive empathy, but possibly not so much affective empathy or none in the case of sociopaths or bullies. In these cases, the bully or sociopath can even take advantage of their own empathy and another person's or people's vulnerability. Often these people can hold positions of power and influence and so it shows how empathy can even lead to the opposite of peace. If they were able to feel just a small bit of what others were feeling because of their actions and decisions, they may find them harder to carry out, but I would say, sadly, not everyone has the same amount of empathy.

I suppose the good news coming from a lot of recent contemporary research in this area is that we can learn and be taught empathy, both cognitive and affective and so we are seeing more programs in schools and non-formal learning settings demonstrating and modeling the benefits of having a balanced amount of empathy and how it can benefit others and lead to peace.

During my two cycles today where I was cycling solo, I thought about times in my life when I originally had empathy and compassion for groups of people who I witnessed suffering injustices and so I wanted to do something about it and attempted to do so.

On reflection now, some years on and with a bit of space in between to process, I realize that although I felt empathy and compassion and a sense of agency to do something, by witnessing suffering and feeling their suffering, at times, I became overwhelmed and it led me to what I now understand to be a state of empathic distress.

I was no longer able to able to practice or have empathic concern for those who I was working or volunteering with due to this distress and it more than likely became a lot more about me and managing my emotions and anger at what I was seeing, instead of being able to offer true compassion and empathy.

Being able to understand this now and thinking about this today, I now feel that I would be able to use and implement more tools of self-compassion and self-regulation l, (like my breathing techniques, the very same breathing techniques that I am using to cycle today and keep my mind and body calm and regulated while pushing itself to the limits on this day of moving more than I've ever moved before today) to remain as resilient as I could be and less distorted while offering the original compassion that intended to and contribute to peace in a greater way.

Knowing about empathy and all its facets is one thing but practicing empathy properly is a whole other thing that needs practice, mistakes, and progress before it can lead to more and more inner and outer peace but it's a path, I certainly intend to keep walking and cycling beyond the 40 days of this challenge. 


Shane O'Connor



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