Monday, May 21, 2012

Picking up cues

The other night as we were leaving shul after the evening services, one of the regulars was complaining to me about a moderate sense of unwellness that he had been experiencing for several weeks. After being examined by doctors, the results had been inconclusive; as far as they could tell, there was no apparent physical source for this fellow's symptoms - no virus, bacteria, or infection.

I asked him what his symptoms were, and whether he could remember at which point he began to feel unwell. Perhaps there was some new stressor - or new element of a source of stress - that coincided with the presentation of these symptoms. He demurred, not wanting to get into specifics, but he acknowledged that there were external factors that were almost certainly contributing to his state of health. Unable to do anything else, I wished him well and "blessed" him that he should find the strength and resilience to deal with these new elements in a healthy way.

As we parted ways, he thanked me for my concern, and told me that he had thought that I had picked up on his stress much earlier, prior to our traveling to the Holy Land for Pesach. He was one of the few people that I approached with an offer to take a k'vittel to Eretz Yisrael, and he read that as my intuiting that he needed some sort of help dealing with some issues.

In his own words "I thought you picked up on it already back then."

Unfortunately, I couldn't honestly say that this was the case; I don't quite know why I approached him over anyone else, although it could be a perceived something at a subconscious level. However, this brought to mind something that I think about often, especially when considering my chosen line of work: I fear sometimes that I don't have the ability to "read" people, to pick up subtleties and non-verbal cues.

I know that listening to people and understanding them is extremely important, and thank God, I try to exemplify that element of counseling. But I am also concerned with what goes on between the lines - to sense things unsaid, to empathize with people when they are trying to communicate silently or unconsciously. That is how I always understood Reb Shlomo Radomsker's explanation of "Gal einai...", that I should be able to see (to sense) another's pain, not just from what they tell me with language, but with their eyes, their gestures.

According to neurological studies, we are wired to empathize with one another through the firing of special brain cells called "mirror neurons" - we see someone performing an act, and our brains mimic the same neural firing associated with the action (despite our not necessarily performing the action at the time). The studies suggest that this gives us an enormous capacity for understanding others' motivations, and even emotional leanings during the performance of the action.

This is an amazing thing that HaShem has encoded into our natures. The question is, is this a skill or ability that can be worked on and improved? How?

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