Blog: Why Empathy Can Be Good For You

You know when you see something that brings you sharply into focus of that moment. That affects you and you know you will remember that moment probably for all time. I had one of those the other day.

I was sat on the sofa and escaping life for a while, watching a film. One of my indulgences. I have never been one for reality or celebrity. I like a story I can engage with. However, not only do I indulge in films, I have learnt that they are a valuable tool for developing myself, flexing my ’empathy muscle’ and getting closer to being mindful of the moment. I can absorb myself.

Research has long shown that stories help us to develop empathy , seeing others worlds, in ways that you don’t always get access to in real life. Isn’t that why we laugh, cry, turn our face away and feel scared depending on the film we are watching.

The other day I watched the Railway Man. Colin Firth played the main character which is always a bonus! It is based on a true story of Eric Lomax who during World War 2 was captured as a British Officer by the Japanese, where he was forced to work on the Thai-Burma Railway north of the Malay Peninsula.

the-railway-man-2014-2As a prisoner of war, Lomax is tortured by the Kempetai for building a radio receiver from spare parts. The torture depicted includes beatings, rape, and waterboarding. Apparently, he had fallen under suspicion of being a spy, for supposedly using the British news broadcast receiver as a transmitter of military intelligence. In fact, however, his only intention had been to use the device as a morale booster for himself and his fellow prisoner-slaves.

The psychological trauma that this torture causes Lomax is still a prevalent part of his every day existence years later . He is filled with hate and fantasies of revenge. With the help of his best friend Finlay, Lomax decides to find and confront one of his captors who had escaped prosecution as a war criminal. Lomax returns to the scene of his torture after he has tracked down Japanese secret police officer Takashi Nagase, “in an attempt to let go of a lifetime of bitterness and hate”.

This story showed how Lomax puts Nagase through a little of what he suffered at his hands, but through the process, and not through real choice, the two men had to truly see the others world. It was painful and caused huge conflict emotionally. Cutting much of the story out for the purpose of this blog, Lomax was unable, in the end, to perform the revenge he had fantasised about for so long – killing Nagase. He left, and went back to England.

However, things would never be the same again, both men had changed from having to empathise with the other. This caused it’s own tortures. None of them wanted to feel anything but hate for the other. But it was too late, they now saw the human being, not the prisoner and torturer. More interesting, Nagase had to face himself adn what he had done. Communication through letters started and Lomax, knew he had to go back to see him.

railway manThe outstanding part of this story for me, the bit that actually made me sit up from my reclined position and say wow, was when they met again and Nagase broke down, genuinely, authentically, heartbreakingly, broke down, desperately needing Lomax and his forgiveness.  Lomax is depicted at this point – and this is the bit the touched me deeply – attempting to put his arm around Negase, the man that had caused more damage to him than most can comprehend. His arm hovered as he struggle with himself to show empathy and indeed compassion. The conflict must have been huge indeed. But he did it. He put his arm around Negase, demonstrating that he understood. Negase cried in his arms.

lomAX_2662584cAt the end of the film, it showed real photos of the two men who became friends and worked together to  address many of the wrong doings of that time in history. As for me, I felt humbled and had another reminder of the power of empathy. It did indeed help each man see the others world, but in turn, their own personal torment was lifted a little. Empathising with the other, had a positive effect on their own well-being.

Thankfully, not many of us go through such extreme experiences, but in developing our empathy, we not only help to create support for others, but, can in fact, support ourselves. Empathy can be good for us too.



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