On Feeling Empathy

A traditional Indian story (I believe) told to me by my yoga teacher:

A young woman hates her mother-in-law with a passion. The feeling seems to be mutual. She resents the older woman’s domineering ways and the fact that her husband still panders to his mother far more than she thinks he should.

She goes to a traditional apothecary and asks to buy poison with which she can kill her mother-in-law. The potion-seller agrees, but points out the flaws in her plot. The enmity between the two women is so well known that if the mother-in-law dies suddenly the daughter-in-law will surely be immediately suspected of foul play. The poison must be slow acting and gradual, and in the meantime, the daughter-in-law should pretend to seek a rapprochement with her mother-in-law.

The apothecary suggests that the poison should be administered by the daughter-in-law through the mother-in-law’s skin via a daily massage with fragrant oils.

He despatches the daughter-in-law to do her dreadful work with a massage oil of wonderful fragrance.

Over the weeks that follow as the daughter-in-law massages her mother-in-law daily, they find time to chat. They share stories and memories, they find things they have in common and differences between them that fascinate rather than divide them. Their understanding deepens until the younger woman realises she is in the process of poisoning a woman who has become her friend.

She returns to the apothecary and begs for an antidote to the poison, which he smilingly gives her in the form of an oil with a new fragrance.

And as she leaves, full of gratitude that she has a chance to put right the devastating harm she nearly caused, only the apothecary knows that there was only ever perfume, never poison, in the massage oil.

Empathy can grow – even in a heart bent on destruction – if only that person can make the time and the peace to listen.

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