I cried when I heard the news about Robin Williams.
Not once, not twice, but many many times. I was so sad at the loss his family and friends would feel, so sad for the rest of us to not be able to experience his genius again on the stage or on the big screen. Robin Williams is no more. I didn’t like that one bit. Such tragic awful news.
Then a few days later, I was angry at Robin. Furious! Outraged! I would have conversations with him in my mind, screaming “How Could You Do This?”, “What were you thinking?”, “Are you out of your mind?” and “Well, are you happy now? Did you get what you wanted?”
I couldn’t stop thinking how selfish he was to end his own life without being considerate of others! How madly irresponsible! Because suicide is selfish. Suicide is inconsiderate. Suicide is the easy way out. Or so I thought.
Then – and I don’t know what prompted me to feel this way -I just got deeply curious. Sure, to me, it’s insanity to give up this life and I say that only from my point of view – even though I’ve experienced hardship, war, bombings in Iran, brushes with poverty, living in a terrorist country, immigrating to America with no money, culture shock, sickness in my family, and a lot more but never, ever have I contemplated that no life is better than life.
Because there is always, ALWAYS, always a reason to have hope.
But that was me and my limited singular point of view. If I wanted to understand Robin Williams, I had to leave my own thinking behind.
So I did. I set aside all my preconceived notions of suicide and felt a space open for thinking clearly, for listening, for learning, for imagining the pain and suffering of someone else from their point of view not my own.
Because you know what? The truth is, I don’t know anything about suicide. I don’t know states of a mind that would attempt, think about or go through with such an act. I do not know anyone who has experienced it in a loved one.
So I let go of all judgements and then – and only then- was I able to see clearly.
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On suicide, hope and learning empathy
I began to picture Robin months, weeks, days, and especially hours prior to his suicide. What was going through his mind? What was so dark and so evil that was worth giving up his beautiful life, his beautiful family, his large circle of friends, his success, his genius, and his comedy for?
What demons were ruling his decisions and actions and most importantly, what was it like to live with those demons day in and day out for only God knows how long?
What stories could he be telling himself that made everything in life seem so desperate? What voices were talking to him that made him feel so isolated, so alone, so powerless?
And then I tried to imagine what that all must’ve felt like. Imagine having a thought that is so dark, so awful, that you decide to kill yourself so that you can be free from it but then also end your life over it?
What made him succumb to this awful burden and lose all hope of making a comeback?
Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around. ~Leo Buscaglia
Imagine a state of mind where you are a slave to an internal demon, and you completely forget that you control your actions, not your deranged thoughts. Imagine forgetting your power to act, to heal from wounds no matter how deep, to recover, to overcome difficulties, and hold on to faith and love and friendship and life.
Then I imagined what Robin’s final hours were like. What exactly did he do when he woke up that morning? Did he know he would die today?
Did he shower? Look at himself in the mirror and if so, what did he see? Did he eat? Did he look at his family album? Did he talk to himself? Was he scared? Did he cry or shout? Did he laugh at the madness of the world? Did he look forward to death, to being free of suffering through non-existence? Did he believe in God or heaven?
And my body shivered as I felt less than a tiny fraction – a drop in the ocean of pain and suffering that Robin must have been feeling and how enormously difficult everything must have been for him.
Now that is feeling empathy. Earlier, when I was wallowing in my own sadness and anger, I was being selfish, self-centered, and judgmental without very little actual knowledge.
Having empathy is not the same as endorsing or approving of someone’s actions. This does not mean I now endorse the act of suicide. Heavens NO! Robin needed desperate help and it is extremely unfortunate that he did not get it. But in all its irony, according to Robin himself in his role as a father in “The World’s Greatest Dad”, where his son accidentally commits suicide:
Suicide is a PERMANENT solution to a TEMPORARY problem. ~Robin Williams in World’s Greatest Dad
Your problems are temporary. Suicide isn’t.
4 habits of highly empathic people that you can start doing right now
Empathic people live fuller and richer lives but how do you develop empathy?
Empathy is a skill just like any other and you can learn it and get good at it. I have outlined 4 ways you can start becoming more empathic but be forewarned: This is going to push you way out of your comfort zone. So start small, and do only one of these at a time and see how you feel.
When you can connect on a deeper level to another human being through empathy, you can be of higher service, you can help with your talents and skills and gifts in ways you wouldn’t be able to do on superficial levels alone.
Here are four ways you can start becoming more empathic starting today:
1. Be fully present in every interaction and conversation
Total presence is the greatest gift you can give anyone, and the hardest skill you can develop. Being present means setting aside the noise and chatter in your mind as well as physically in your environment. It means facing the person speaking to you, hearing them – not the next thought in your own head as to what you will say. It means responding with your body – your eyes, your energy, your gestures, your presence. It means doing nothing else except being fully present.
Do this in the very next conversation with anyone you are having, including a family member or partner.
2. Come from a place of genuine curiosity
Practice genuine curiosity next time you connect with another person. Let’s say you meet a new person today and want to connect with them. Instead of just exchanging a few pleasantries about the weather, food or work, ask them about their big challenge in life right now? What do they struggle with? What’s it like to struggle with that or have that problem? Listen. Get curious. Ask them to tell you more.
You’re not there to solve their problem or to even give them advice. You’re there to be a curious engaged active listener. You are enabling them to be HEARD, perhaps you are the only one that is doing that for them. Practice this with at least one stranger and one close friend or family. Then how this act of engaging deeper with another makes YOU feel. Let how you feel guide you deeper into empathy for others.
3. Challenge your own opinions and judgements
Take the opposite side of the argument than you normally would and defend that position. Your beliefs and values drive your decisions in life. So what if you challenged them for a change?
This does not mean you’re tricking yourself to get on the opposing political campaign or take on a new religion or join a cult – no. It simply means you question your beliefs and see matters from the other point of view.
Here’s my vulnerable personal example: I used to believe that suicide is purely selfish and short-sighted. Now that I have questioned my belief, and felt true empathy for Robin Williams, I believe that suicide is a cry for help, an act of utter desperation, and that we need to be more aware mental illness and how to encourage those who suffer from it to get help.
4. Use the right language in a conversation
Listening deeply and completely is a wonderful skill to start with but so is knowing what to say – or not say – in response. Here are some phrases I find useful and genuine when someone – a friend or a client – is confiding in me. “I can’t imagine what that’s like. Please tell me more.” or “I’d love to help you. What would help you in this situation?” or “I hear you and can’t imagine what that’s like but can I just remind you that you are powerful and will get through this?”.
Stay clear of judging, deciding, pointing out flaws, and jumping to solving a problem. Practice the right words, the right phrases, and only say them if they come naturally to you.
If you forget everything else, remember what the Dalai Lama said about love: What is Love? Love is the lack of judgement. And that is the deepest and highest form of empathy.