This story means more to me now, after I have gone through some debilitating health problems. Like Sister Walton, as I was (and am) going through these problems, I find myself figuratively saying to myself, “I will be happy if I can just keep my boots dry!” I must say that my experiences, like Sister Walton’s, have helped me to have more empathy for others, especially those who have experienced similar sufferings. This experience was shared by Sister Elaine Walton, Director of Social Work at BYU, at a BYU Devotional July 30, 2002.
As a professional counselor I learned that I could use my own personal experiences to not only feel empathy for my clients but also to provide perspective (different lenses through which to view the world) to help my clients see beyond failure, anger, or fear to the possibility of hope and resolution. Let me illustrate by sharing one useful experience.
Many years ago, when I was a little thinner and more physically fit, I completed a 30-day wilderness survival course. During the third week of that extraordinarily rigorous experience, we were left in groups of four or five students (without an instructor) and expected to find our way from one point on a topographical map to another point (a distance of about 50 miles). After two days of trudging through the snow in the tops of the Henry Mountains in southern Utah and getting lost on several occasions as we made our way down into the valley, my companions and I were extremely grateful on the third day to be able to identify our location with certainty. We arrived at a stream in the middle of a beautiful meadow. All we had to do was follow this river to our rendezvous point. It would be impossible for us to get lost again. So we gleefully walked along the riverbank, stopping occasionally to enjoy the scenery. The river was wide, slow, and shallow. When we chose to switch to the other side, it was easy to cross the stream by jumping from rock to rock. There came a time, however, when there was no bank. What started out as a grassy meadow had become something of a canyon. As I kept jumping from rock to rock, I remember thinking, “If only I can keep my boots dry. I hate wet boots!”
The stream was still slow, wide, and shallow, and when there wasn’t a rock to jump to, it was a relief to find out that I could walk on flat sandstone with the water only a few inches deep. The water still would not get inside my boots. But after an hour or so of this kind of careful walking, the canyon became narrower, and there was no place to walk without getting my boots wet–inside and out. We were not interested in turning around and finding another route to the rendezvous point. We had spent too much time and energy getting this far, so we bravely continued with water just above our knees. I remember thinking, “If only I can keep my pack dry. It would really be a disaster if all my clothes and my blanket got wet.” Fortunately the water was quite clear, and I was able to see where to walk in order to stay in the shallower parts of the river. After an hour or two of this kind of progress, I noticed that the canyon was becoming even narrower, and the inevitable happened–there was no shallow spot. We still were determined to press forward rather than backtrack, even though the bottom half of my pack was now drenched.
Then, after another hour or so of carefully making my way in chest-high water, I took a step and felt nothing beneath my feet. My thoughts had evolved from “if only I can keep my boots dry” to “if only I can keep my pack dry” to “if only I can stay alive!” I paddled desperately for about 50 feet or so. And, finally, there was a welcome sight–a break in the canyon wall and a sandy bank. We climbed out of the water and examined our packs. Everything was soaked! We made a fire, and as I sat there drying myself, my clothes, and everything in my pack, I felt only gratitude. I remember reflecting on what a waste of time it had been to worry about getting my boots wet.
Now, having had that experience and other similar experiences, I can respond to a client with empathy. I can say, metaphorically, “I can see that you don’t like to get your boots wet” or “You’re worried about getting your pack wet” or “You must be afraid you are about to drown.” I know what it feels like to be afraid you are going to drown. But even though I have empathy for my client’s feelings, I won’t share my client’s anxiety because I also have a vision of that client sitting on the bank by a fire (metaphorically speaking) and feeling only gratitude.
I have learned over the years that empathy is important for everyone, not just professional counselors. Empathy is an essential ingredient for all positive interpersonal relationships. If we couldn’t at least imagine what it feels like to be in someone else’s shoes or skin, we wouldn’t be able to connect; we would live our lives in isolation. Empathy is the skill or characteristic that makes it possible for us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves (see Matthew 19:19). It is empathy we demonstrate when we “bear one another’s burdens,” “mourn with those that mourn . . . , and comfort those that stand in need of comfort”—as taught by Alma (Mosiah 18:8–9).