“Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another and feeling with the heart of another.” – Alfred Adler
Did I get your attention with that title? I was initially going to title this post, “Pissing Contest”, but I worried what my grandmother might think when she saw me post that up on Facebook. (Hi, Grandma!)
I am the worst at this. I’m trying to be better, as I realized this way of thinking is seriously so pathetic. “I had a long day.” You had a long day? Well get the crap I had to deal with today. Basically, “your crap isn’t crap because my crap is really crappier crap.” I apologize, I’m going to shout for a moment: HOW FREAKING SAD IS THAT. It is rampant in today’s society. Who has it harder? Who is struggling more? We see posts on Facebook that make us go “aw, wow, I can’t imagine going through that” and then we step right back into our days with a self-inflicted chip on our shoulder, pissed off that we didn’t get our way.
I don’t know if I was like this before my mom died. I don’t remember, honestly. I know that after I lost my mom, I had a serious lack of empathy. I remember a teammate mourning the loss of her dog. I stuck my nose up at it. You don’t know grief. You haven’t been through what I’ve been through. Gross. Even typing it out makes me cringe. I have been that person. Oh trust me, I still have my days. What good does that do anyone, though?
Please note, I am far removed from today’s political culture. I don’t know crap going on in the world around me. I am the opposite of well-informed so take what I say next with a grain of salt. I think the state of our world can be partly attributed to a serious lack of empathy. I think the world might be in a slightly better state if we all just tried to understand each other a bit more. Yes, I know, very “Kumbaya” of me. Instead, we all walk around with this thought that the weight we’re carrying is heavier than everyone else’s. Fun fact, either way, it sucks.
Tonight at the CrossFit box I attend, two 1,000 meter sandbag runs were a part of the workout, one at the beginning and one at the end. All of us walked to the end of the gym, shaking our legs out, picking up the sandbags to test out the weight. Ugh, that feels heavy, I thought as I picked up the sandbag. Granted, I say that most times when I test out the weight before a workout. As our coach began to countdown to the start of the workout, we all reached down and placed the sandbag on our backs. Go, our coach exclaimed and we took off. For some of the class, it was one of their first workouts with a weight like this on their shoulders, so their run was slower than others. For others, a faster pace was easier to keep because this wasn’t the first time they’ve felt that weight, so navigating it is a little easier. You know what’s cool? We all went in the same direction. We all had the same goal. We all finished the same exact workout. We all fist bumped at the end, telling the others “good job” or “nice work”. Now, yes, the men’s sandbag weight is heavier than the women’s. However, does the weight on the back of a less experienced athlete weigh more than the weight on the more experienced athlete’s back? Nope. The difference? Experience. Metaphor time people!
Life, inevitably, is going to toss some weight on our shoulders. Some are going to have a little more experience walking through life with a sandbag filled with the weight of life’s crap experiences. We are all carrying a freaking sandbag. We all are navigating this life with some extra weight and yes, some days that weight is heavy. Some days, the big win is that we got out of bed and strapped that sandbag to our backs. Minimizing the weight of another’s sandbag isn’t going to miraculously make ours lighter. I think, instead, it chisels away at the chip on our shoulder, threatening our strength and the ability to comfortably rest that weight on a solid foundation.
I remember this so vividly. It cut deep. I get emotionally invested in, well, everything, but specifically my job and my patients. My transition to the East Coast, away from family, and into a new, demanding job, was tough. It drained me emotionally and I was not coping well with it all. I was stressed all the time. I was finding myself staying up late, thinking about patients. I still do, but I’m better able to compartmentalize these things. Anyways, I remember sitting on the couch, having yet another intense, relationship-y discussion. I don’t understand your job, he said. This wasn’t new to me. A lot of people don’t always understand what I do right off the bat. I always feel bad for the people that do want to know more because I fully nerd out. Here, he told me, handing me a stack of papers from a case he was working on. What I read is something I actually think about often, as it helps ensure I do my job well and take care of these little nuggets I see. After reading it, I looked at him with tears in my eyes. I couldn’t believe this was his job. What I have to do isn’t nearly as emotionally draining as what he does, I thought to myself. What I had initially perceived as perspective was actually the minimization of the emotional toll my job can take on me. The moment I felt this, I went on the defensive and began to minimize his job by explaining the challenges I face in mine, like when everyone has used up all of the freaking bubbles. Just kidding.
What resulted is a severe lack of empathy from both parties. Where there’s a lack of empathy and effort to understand, there are walls being built. Dude, nobody benefits from walls. Our life experiences are different. We all have weights to carry. We all have an end goal: surviving this crazy life as unscathed as possible.
I truly believe empathy can change the world. I think it starts with the day-to-day, conscious effort to show a little understanding, even when what we’re going through feels heavy. I think it starts by us hearing or seeing someone struggling, saying, “I see you carrying that freaking sandbag,” and running alongside them.
“If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
– Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)