It’s Not That Bad – Empathy vs Sympathy


“It’s not that bad.”

Said in compassion, these are still four words that nullify another person’s experience.

It takes away their right to mourn, to grieve, to experience defeat or loss. It says, “YOU don’t know how you feel, but I do.”

I used to be guilty of this, and probably will be again at some point if I am not present. It’s natural for us to want to minimize someone’s suffering or to offer a different perspective (especially if WE are the problem!) and so we say:

“It’s not that bad.”

If you really want to connect with someone and help them, you have to be willing to take a risk, to open yourself up, to be okay with pain.

Instead of taking away someone’s right to their experience, help them understand it on their own terms, in their own way.

Ask, “How bad is it?”

And allow the reply.

It might be uncomfortable to hear the truth, but it’s the only way to get through something, really process it and grow.

“How bad is it?”

Now you can have a healing conversation.

Because sometimes it’s really bad, and a burden too hard to carry.

And sometimes it’s not so bad after all, once someone is allowed to look at the situation without constraints or conditions.

A lot of people feel that you must NEVER focus on the bad or bad things will happen. Just keep your mind exclusively positive ALL the time.

That is denying the very purpose and path of experience and growth. That philosophy can be unhealthy when taken to extremes.

If you don’t freely acknowledge where the struggles are and what they are, you simply steal your opportunity to learn!

This also works for the state of the world.

And it’s a very good way to diagnose something honestly and then to work toward making it better.

After all, once you know how deep it goes, you have the map for getting back out again.

And so, “How bad is it” can eventually become, “So what’s left that’s good?” And “How much more amazing can it get?”

There is hope for you, for me, for All Our Relations.

And it starts by allowing the truth of the moment, of a struggle, of a feeling, to be expressed.

It starts with that level of gentle kindness and humility.

Hiy hiy


Theresa Wiseman, Nursing Scholar, studied very diverse professions where empathy is relevant and came up with four qualities of empathy:

  1. Perspective taking, the ability to take the perspective of another person
  2. Staying out of judgement
  3. Recognizing emotion in other people
  4. Communicating that recognition

Empathy is a choice and its a vulnerable choice.


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Mist on the Mountainside

Mist on the Mountainside
Digital (iPhone + Brushes App)

Here’s a quick piece I created on my iPhone using the Brushes App. I’m actually a closet watercolourist but still working on my skills. I found the interface easy to use but the screen ‘real estate’ far too small. This is what would prompt me toward an iPad, creating quick sketches in full colour any time any place.


I love the mountains. When I was younger I would get an overpowering urge to return. We lived hours away on the plains and I would squint at the clouds on the horizon, imagining them to be a wall of stone and valley. As I grew older I was able to make my way there on my own, even to the extent of making the choice of living under their shadow, training as a goldsmith in the Waterton Valley.

I saw the many and sudden changes in the weather, the shifts from rain to sunshine and then to snow, all in a day.

I walked seldom used trails, scaling higher and higher until there were no more trees, just me, the wind, and the eagle.

I explored the valley depths, the secret pools and whispering streams. Clean, cold water flowing silkily over moss covered rocks.

I spoke with the animals, with a distant wolf, the bear, a cougar up in a tree who considered me for lunch but for reasons unknown changed menu plans. The birds were my constant companions and the fragile forest floor was home to the most exquisite, delicate flowers.

In the years that have passed, I see now that the mountains were my cure for a deep and aching pain that left untreated would have lead to insanity. They took my anxiety, fears and hurt away from me and gave me in turn a solid place to return to in my life, my thoughts, and my dreams.

I still return for short periods of time at least once a year. Where others see recreation, I see the place where I was wild, the place where I left behind the world and became a child of the forest. I see my place of healing and the fields of my awakening.

I learned that I can control nothing, manage nothing, save for myself. I learned I have a choice and that life is nothing but choices. I learned about laziness, excuses, blindness. I learned that the poison of one life can be passed to new, innocent lives and that this poison really can be drawn out of us.

We are all poisoned before we have a chance to choose, just as our parents were and their parents were. This poison can cause us to behave in irrational, desperate ways. Until we accept this we’ll live by the will of the poison, and not by our own will.

Accept it and the healing already starts to happen.

The Rocky Mountains drew out my poison and gave me the gift of thinking on my own, of making decisions that were healthy, and giving me patience in the face of other people’s poison.

We can all heal. And then we can heal all.

The Mist on the Mountainside is an expression of my gratitude and humility before nature. It represents where I was, where I went and where I am going. Those mountains clad and caressed by the ethereal clouds are the safeguards of my soul.


A Gift to Honor Survivors. All Surviviors

Returning Home
30″ x 40″
Mixed Media on Canvas

I’m allowing free full sized download of this image. For those who need it you are welcome to it. Click here.

If you like any of my other work to purchase, it would be appreciated but is absolutely not necessary. This is my gift and now it’s yours. Here’s why:

This was painted for the survivors of the Canadian Residential School experience. For those who don’t know, it was government policy to “kill the Indian” in children by taking them forcibly from their homes and transporting them to far away schools. These Schools were run primarily by religious organizations and many of the children were physically and sexually abused. They were forbidden to speak their own language and at the end of their experience were broken people with many unresolved emotional scars. My grandmother was one of them. This policy ended in the 1990’s. Not the 1890’s. The 1990’s.

Every First Nations (Native) family has someone who was subjected to this purposeful abuse and the long ranging results are alcoholism, drug abuse, perpetuation of the abuse they suffered on the next generation, mental illness and so on.

Sometimes white society in Canada gets frustrated at the repetition of these facts. I guess it’s a sort of “blame the victim” mentality and they wish Aboriginal people would just get over it. Of course, it is my most sincere wish that one day First Nations people heal and do get over the abuse.

But something that took hundreds of years to mess up probably won’t be fixed overnight. It will take generations, and that’s just the simple, unvarnished truth. White society should be outraged at their government. Locking someone in a room and allowing them to be molested by a man or woman of god for ten years might take more than an apology to make all right.

Anyway, it’s kind of depressing information, I agree, so I’ll leave you with the write up I created for this work.

The idea for this painting was to communicate safety, security, a return to tradition and traditional teachings. In essence, it was to be about healing. I considered the challenge it represented and in an instant this image appeared to me. A tipi lit from within, offering sanctuary against winter’s chill. The warmth is so overpowering that it spills out through the skin, much like the glow of a person who has found a truth and lives by it, their own personal light shining out into the world offering hope to everyone. And better yet, there is a community here. No one is alone. In every home is a family, laughing, playing, dancing or praying. This is a good place to be.

Above the still and silent night hangs a full moon, lighting the way for travelers who are still out in the hills, showing them the way back to hearth and comfort. They carry burdens but will be able to put them down when their lonely journey ends. Watching over it all are the Aurora Borealis, our Northern Lights. Swaying, shining, the light of those who have gone before – our grandmothers and grandfathers – are holding hands, keeping the beat of the Round Dance. We watch this beautiful dance and are reminded of the old ways, the old teachings. We are reminded of our connection to heaven and earth, past and future. We are reminded to live here and now, in each other’s hearts.

Though the journey seems far, we are never alone. The spirits of the land surround us, the spirits of the sky watch over us, and the Great Spirit, our Creator, leads us to our greatest happiness. It’s hard to believe it when we are alone in the wilderness, but come home, be safe, be warm. Come home and rest. Come home at last, and heal.

if you are a Residential School survivor or would like to gift this image to a survivor, go to the link provided above and print out that high resolution file. Hiy hiy


-Aaron Paquette