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Three weeks later and, yes, I’m still talking about the Vatican conference on health. Seriously, it was so good, and if you have time you should check it out. This week I wanted to talk about one of the panels that I enjoyed the most because it applied to me the most. The panel was titled “The Neuroscience of Empathy and Compassion”. It is always more enjoyable learning about things when they apply to you.

One of the first things they did was define the difference between empathy and compassion. Being empathetic with someone means that you are able to understand and often feel the hurting person’s pain. When you are compassionate, you are then drawn to act on behalf of the hurting person to try to ease their pain. They explained that this difference can be seen in brain scans as well. When a person is empathizing, their brain fires pain signals similar to the person being empathized with. (A complex process involving lots of parts of the brain)

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On the other hand, with compassion, the brain process prepares the person to act by activating the ventral striatum of the brain. This part of the brain is often associated with the reward pathway, but in this context it is better described as a motivation pathway. Compassion, not some reward, is what is motivating you to act.

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I am an empath of the highest order (in my estimation). When someone is in pain, I truly feel that emotional pain. It can be a gift, but sometimes it is entirely too overwhelming. When any kind of mass tragedy happens, I’ll probably be curled up in bed for a day or more because I can’t function. My brain just seems so flooded with emotions and heartache. God bless my husband who has become very good at comforting me in these times when, again, nothing has actually happened TO ME.

But then I have the times where this empathy can be such a true blessing. When my friends are hurting, I can relate to them. I can be there for them. Understanding their pain helps me to better know what it is that they need. I am able to serve them more completely. As much as I complain about this aspect of me, it truly is a gift. It helps me to live out Romans 12:15 more intensely, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep.” I do! As much as I am there for the people in my lives when they are suffering, you can bet I am 10x more their cheerleader when they have even the littlest accomplishment! I want to celebrate them so much! I want everyone to know how wonderful they are! These moments are some of the greatest in my life, and again, they’re not even my moments.

Because of this “gift” of mine, it was really interesting to hear the panelists discuss the issue of burnout when it comes to empathy. Often this is seen in healthcare workers and long-term care takers. This has been especially relevant in the last year with the pandemic. One of the panelists mentioned that when he was in med school, he was specifically taught to not care too much. Then after years of experience and looking at actual data of his fellow healthcare workers, the opposite is actually true. When there is a high level of empathy, there are low burnout rates. When there is a low level of empathy, there are high burnout rates. He and a colleague have hypothesized that this is because when you empathize with the people around you, you get the benefit of that relationship, the fulfilling part of taking care of people. When you are a healthcare professional without empathy, all you’re left with is a very stressful job without that reward.

I found this part of the conversation (though not super scientific) to be fascinating. So often when I feel overwhelmed by these emotions, I retreat into myself, but this man says that it would be better if I dove deeper. In a healthcare setting this works, with people I know personally this works. When it is something happening on the other side of the world, not so much. This sort of understanding is something I need to work on and grow in. One of the panelists discussed a conversation with the Dalai Lama about “wise empathy”. This is when you understand the pain of another, are even able to feel it, but you are able to separate yourself by knowing that it is not your personal pain. This is where I struggle and where I need to work on things.

I have been very lucky to recognize and have time to analyze this gift in myself. For others it is not always as clear what each of our gifts are. This past Sunday we celebrated the feast of Pentecost.

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This is when the Holy Spirit descends upon the apostles so that they have the gift of speaking in tongues and are able to proclaim the good news to all the people present in each of their native tongues. This feast day is when the Catholic Church celebrates the gifts that the Holy Spirit gives to each of us in baptism and seals in us at Confirmation. There are some gifts directly listed out in Corinthians 12:7-11 and Romans 12:6-8, but the Holy Spirit gives different gifts to each of us. As it says in last Sunday’s readings:

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Last week I talked about how we are all sent out with a message to bring to the world. This week reminds us that we are not going out into that world alone. We are going with God, and the Holy Spirit has specifically given us gifts that will help us on this mission. Last week I asked you to pray about what your mission was, what the message was. This week I invite you to talk to God about what gifts he has given you to help you on that mission. For me, it is imperative that I be able to relate to the people I am trying to teach. If I don’t understand them then I will never be able to get through to them. When I am able to empathize with them and understand where they are coming from, I can more fully share my message of faith and science with them.

As you pray about what your message is, I invite you to search yourself to find what gifts you have been given that help you to be better suited to share that specific message. Once you know the answer, I encourage you to pray to the Holy Spirit, asking Him to help you grow these gifts even more! As I said, even though I am aware of my gift of empathy, I have a lot of work still to do so as to continue serving God to the best of my abilities! I hope you’ll join me in growing in our gifts.

If you are having a hard time figuring out your gifts, this is a quick but fairly accurate personality-type test to help give you an idea of what your spiritual gifts might be: You might be surprised what it says.