If a five year old can play Bach piano concertos we call them a prodigy. But if that same five year old can weave out velvety heart aching blues as though Ella were singing Summertime through their fingers we call them an old soul. The moniker isn’t reserved for startlingly gifted child musicians but they are one of the most obvious and illustrative examples.
We’ve all met or encountered those rare individuals who just seem attuned to a grander font of perception and wisdom than regular people. The one friend who always seems able to calmly see directly to the heart of a matter, the artist able to create works which evoke universal and timeless truths, the performer who is able to convey depth and nuance of emotion far beyond what one might expect of them.
We associate wisdom, stability, and clarity of perception with age and accumulated experience which is why we are somewhat shocked and unsettled when such traits appear in those seemingly too young. We reconcile this by calling them an ‘old soul’ implying the soul inside is much older than the body containing it, either as a sideways nod to the concept of reincarnation or an assumption the person has been through a great deal very early in life.
An old soul can certainly be forged by the impacts of trauma. Far more people wind up facing incredibly painful and damaging experiences very early in life than we would wish, and those who manage survive the crucible of it can emerge strengthened and changed and aged. But having an old soul does not require hardship. Sometimes it can simply be with a person from birth.
I have been referred to as an old soul fairly frequently in my life. I could point to the experience of spending my formative years closeted after realizing I was gay at age eleven in a time and place where it would not have been well received. Or I could point to being the unusual kind of eleven year old who puts that kind of math together then sets about planning strategies for how I was going to approach my life so I could be both true to myself and be safe.
Whether we want to attribute them to genetic behavioral predisposition or to environmental molding or if we want to flirt with concepts of reincarnation by supposing it is the influence of a soul which has already lived many, many lives there are two main traits which both generate and manifest what we refer to as an old soul. The ability to always step back and see the bigger picture, and the ability to genuinely empathize with emotions and impulses beyond those we have experienced ourselves. Both traits feed into and require one another.
Big Picture Perspective
Being able to see the entire forest rather than only a single tree at a time can be an invaluable skill. It can offer us a grounding sense of scale and context for the events and challenges we are faced with as well as help us comprehend and contemplate potential stakes and consequences beyond the immediate moment. Things never happen in isolation or a vacuum and awareness of both our place in the bigger picture as well as our potential impact on it can be absolutely crucial.
Part of the calm and wizened stability which marks one as having an old soul springs from the capacity to take a breath, step back from the immediacy and urgency of the moment, and gain a sense of bearing in relation to the grander scheme. That step back can free us from intensity and pressure much like gazing at a clear star-filled sky has a calming effect on the emotions while at the same time inspiring contemplation. Expanding our field of view reveals and reminds there are countless different paths and options open to us if we can get free enough to take note of them.
The detachment offered by stepping back can free us from the frenzy of immediate intensities but it can also be taken too far, often used as a method of escaping the intensity rather than disempowering it. If we lock our vision onto the big picture alone that outsider’s perspective does offer a unique vantage point but it also can then completely disengage us from our lives. Life is lived in those moments, the comfortable and intense ones. The purpose of stepping back to the big picture is to calm and contextualize those individual moments, not to hide from them indefinitely.
Empathy Beyond Direct Experience
Awareness, acknowledgment, and respect of other’s differing emotions and experiences is certainly something which can be learned and cultivated, and should be, but the instinctive capacity to step into those other shoes and see a moment through someone else’s eyes is something more seemingly born with.
At an intellectual level we all understand other people have, and have had, different experiences in their lives than we have. In most cases we also understand different people can have vastly different experiences of the same event. The ability to not simply acknowledge the emotions and experiences of others but to viscerally relate and tap into those feelings takes that to a much higher level, it becomes genuine empathy.
There is a lot of back and forth about the differences between sympathy and empathy. Much of the discussion tends to end up circling around issues of enabling versus empowering. Sympathy is viewed as socially reflexive, a conventional nicety acknowledging another person’s pain or distress. Empathy gets described more as truly connecting with the other person and their emotions, very often in the context of encouraging and empowering them to not feel powerless or at the mercy events.
These contrasts of sympathy and empathy aren’t necessarily wrong or misleading but I will offer my own take on the difference between them. Sympathy focuses on the event, empathy focuses on the person.
We sympathize with someone whose loved one has died because we understand that to be a painful event. It’s a cultural acknowledgment which validates both the gravity of the event and the anticipated impacts and reactions, a gesture based in social kindness.
What sours it slightly with tones of disempowerment is that it puts the event ahead of the person and their feelings, and can feel prescriptive as to what those feelings are supposed to be which can either leave us with the sense our emotions need to be justified and fall within was it is viewed as culturally appropriate, or at the other end can offer us a place to hide in our powerlessness in the face of such overshadowing events.
Empathy puts the person and their emotions first. We empathize with someone who is feeling sad and then acknowledge what has happened as capable of causing it. The empathetic approach focuses on how the person is doing before shifting to acknowledge the event, asking how they are feeling before offering condolences on their loss.
This tends to be more empowering because it puts the person in the driver’s seat and deals directly with their emotions rather than making the event prominent. The potential danger with empathy is, if taken too far, we can end up taking on the other person’s emotions as our own in essence making ourselves ill as we attempt to help them heal or, at worst, claiming their emotions for ourselves and making their sadness about us instead.
Sympathy is not wrong or harmful or evil, and to be clear offering condolences for someone’s loss is always a good thing, it is merely a more shallow form of connection. Empathy is an act of rolling up your sleeves and meeting them at the emotional level, regardless of the event which got them there. Both sympathy and empathy can be extremely helpful and supportive, empathy just tends to be a bit messier and where more serious healing occurs.
The old soul types have an instinctive drive to connect with people in empathetic ways first and foremost. The big picture trait tends to keep them from getting swamped in those emotions and the more intense emotional connection tends to give that bigger picture more relevant and grounded context.
Old souls are able to take their empathetic connections to an extra level because they not only focus on other people’s emotions they are able to relate to those emotions by understanding how the other person got there, even if the events in question would not have impacted them the same way.
That is the other way in which the big picture trait enhances the empathy. The ability to step back out of the moment and look at the bigger picture translates into being able to step out of their own emotions and view the emotions being felt from another perspective, more precisely from the other person’s perspective.
The big picture view enables them to see the whole picture of the person they are with, to understand how they would be impacted by the moment at hand, and the empathy enables them to follow the other person down that path and at some level feel those same emotions. Not only does it more potently validate the person and their feelings it is also more unifying because it demonstrates no matter how different we are we can share each other’s paths if we are willing and able to take a step back from our own.
I see you and how you fit into the life around you. I can see why this moment is impacting you the way it is and is making you feel the way you do, even if others would not react in the same way. I don’t have to feel exactly what you feel in order to acknowledge you are feeling it. You feel what you feel, I see it and I see you.
This dynamic is at the core of acting as a craft, and those with the combination of true talent and honed skill can shake you to your marrow with a single look. For us old souls it is a way of life.
As someone occasionally described as being born two hundred years old I have had my shares of struggling with my old soul. At times I have stepped too far back becoming overly detached to the point practically living on the moon and I have also gotten swept up and nearly drowned in the intense emotions of others. It can be a difficult balancing act but I would not trade the perspective or capacity for emotional connection for anything, and I have had the privilege of utilizing them in creative and artistic settings of music and theater and dance seeing firsthand the incredible impact it can have.
That confoundingly young singer who is tearing out your heart with their ‘someone done me wrong’ song might have already lived some serious life in their short years, they might be in possession of a soul which has already made countless trips across this world, but whatever the source that chill they are sending down your spine comes from an instinctive ability to see the bigger picture with all its glorious shades of difference as well as the ways we all connect to it and the way it connects us all together.
That is the somewhat mystical power of the old soul. They are able to see and feel through the eyes of other people and, for a moment or two, they enable others to do the same.