Resonance: Lessons in Empathy

If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame. [proverbs 18.13]

Whoever sings songs to a heavy heart is like one who takes off a garment on a cold day, and like vinegar on soda. [proverbs 25.20]

When I became a mother – still wide-eyed, green as could be, and doing my best to hide all my insecurities about how to meet the needs of a tiny human – I remember my own mother teaching me an unforgettable lesson. Oscar was crying, his tiny body writhing and I’m sure my postpartum body was writhing as well, probably responding to my own stress more than his. I swayed anxiously, silently, willing it to stop. My mom gently suggested, “Melissa, let him know you’re there.”

This sounded silly at first. How does he not know I’m here?! I’m holding him! But then I caught on to what she meant – I needed to let him know I was there by vocalizing my presence.

At first it was a wimpy little hum, but that hum began to mimic the rise and fall of Oscar’s cries and soon became a song-like cry along with him. He began calming down quickly, but by this point I was feeling alongside him. I felt what he was feeling: reaching out for comfort, love, presence. I teared up, not necessarily out of sadness that he was sad, or out of happy surprise that my mother’s suggestion had worked so well, but because I was empathizing. I was sounding along with him. I was resonating with him.

Resonance in music is a universal, physical phenomenon that is as mysterious as it is measurable. If you are a nerd who wants to know more about the actual physics of it all, you can click here. The long and short of it is that all tones are interconnected, some more strongly than others, and when you play one note, you are actually hearing a series of notes all resonating together. This is called a harmonic series. When one note is played, its own unique harmonic series vibrates along with it (although this is too slight for our ears to pick up on in any obvious way), and we refer to this as sympathetic vibrations or sympathetic resonance. This sympathetic resonance is what gives a note its richness, its distinct tone and place in the harmonic world.

It is amazing to me that our physical bodies are hardwired with sympathetic resonance as well. Many a new-mom can tell you that if she hears a baby cry, her body will physically empathize (there is a reason nursing pads exist!). Even if she does not feel an emotional response to the cry, her body will tell her, “You should.” On that day when I first had “sympathetic resonance” with Oscar, I was able to emotionally empathize and therefore apply a soothing balm to both of our uneasy spirits.

Sympathetic resonance, both in music and in my experiences as a mother, has taught me much about empathy in other relationships. Empathy doesn’t always come easily, and at times I think we can even fight it (any of my well-trained counselor friends want to dissect that one for me?). But as I look at and understand the harmonic richness that occurs in the musical world due to sympathetic resonance, and as I experience the calming and connecting power of resonating with my child, I can’t help but wonder what power it would have to let ourselves resonate with others in the same way.

Perhaps it is simply a matter of listening and letting whatever possible chords that can be struck within you to indeed be struck. This doesn’t mean you understand or can relate to everything someone else feels. Again, music provides the perfect analogy: a low C on the piano isn’t going to cause sympathetic vibrations in every other note on the keyboard, only the notes within its harmonic series. In the same way, I believe that due to the imago Dei – image of God, in all of us – we are able to connect with anyone simply because we are human. At first, it may feel like we are acting, to just resonate back what we hear. But just like the strings pulled tightly across the soundboard of a piano, or the swirling emotions of motherhood, sounding back and resonating with another means that at some point, we too will be moved.

I opened this post with two verses from Proverbs because they so beautifully capture pictures of empathy. Usually when we think of empathy in the Bible, we think of Romans 12.15, “Rejoice with those that rejoice; weep with those that weep.” As true and valuable as that verse is, I think it has been taught and communicated in such an imperative way that makes it, at times, a barrier to true empathy. The Proverbs verses are more imagistic and imaginative.  The second proverb in particular is so rich – you can almost feel the chill of taking of a garment on a cold day, or the bubbling of the soda. Using one of my two primary lenses for viewing the world around me (musicianship and motherhood), I now leave you with my nerdy, overstated interpretations of these proverbs in hopes that you, too, may resonate with others and continue on a lifelong journey of lessons in empathy.

Just like a harmonic series cannot and will not sound before the first note has been struck, so also we cannot and should not attempt to resonate with someone before we have listened to them. [interpretation of proverbs 18.13]

Just like a note will only cause sympathetic vibrations in the notes within its harmonic series, so also we should only empathize by sounding within the parameters of an individual’s emotional context. [interpretation of proverbs 25.20]