Crafting the Art of EmpathyWednesday, March 2, 2016
I am writing to you today from the most magical place on earth, more commonly known as the library. Inspired both by a wonderful post I read last week and the fact that, somehow, I am always reminded of empathy every time I enter the library (I have written of this before here), I am now going to discuss the art of being empathetic.
Empathy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of others.
Sit quietly in a public place. Part of the reason I sit in public libraries, and even deem them as magical, is because all types of people come through here: rich people, poor people, people looking for free entertainment, teachers, learners, fathers, mothers, children. In the library you can look up in a crowded room whenever you hear a newspaper rustle or someone typing away at a keyboard and wonder. What are their struggles? What are their joys? The answer will be different for everyone, but more often than not you can see a story for someone whilst sitting in a public library. Why is someone using a library computer for job applications? Maybe they are paid minimum wage and cannot buy their own computer, but are trying to dig out of the vicious pit that is poverty. Why is someone eating scraps out of the trash can? Because he is hungry and has no where to go. Why is a father choosing a fairy tale for his daughter? Because she is his Sun and his Moon and together they emanate love.
Look into a stranger's eyes. You can often tell a lot about people from their eyes. Eyes tell a storybook still being written. When you look into a stranger's eyes, you see their world - all the love, all the pain. The man applying for jobs? He is hopeful and strong, if not exhausted. The homeless man eating scraps? You can see desperation in his face as he figures out what to do for tomorrow. The father and daughter choosing a fairy tale? They are sharing a special kind of love that only those who have ever experienced it can understand. All of this can be seen through those windows to the soul known as eyes. If you see joy, rejoice in their happiness. If you see pain, cry in their sorrow. Remember that we have all loved and we have all had pain.
Become involved outside of your comfort zone. Talk to people you normally would not. I would say it's a little odd to strike up a conversation at the library, since it's supposed to be a quiet place, but public transit is a treasure chest for getting out of comfort zone (at least in the US - we drive quite a lot here). Why? Because even if you do not light the match of conversation, someone else surely will. While riding the bus, there is almost always someone who will either talk to anyone willing to respond, or is riding with an acquaintance of some sort. You hear the most honest feelings rich with human experience. For example, once upon a time my brother and I were riding the bus and had mentioned a shopping centre near our hometown when a stranger popped up and asked where we were from. He was also from that area and, to make a longer story much shorter, he eventually told us how he moved to Lexington for a woman who had later kicked him out and left him homeless. I did not have anything to give him, but the gift of unloading a burden onto someone who could remember Home just as much as him left him with a beaming smile that day. In fact, I'd say we were both gifted that day. I hope he made it back to the town he missed so badly.
The thing is, you don't have to go to the library, or ride the bus to really craft empathy. They are very good places to start, but you can really observe people living anywhere. So the next time you are out running regular errands, remember that everyone is still writing their story in the Notebook of Life, just like the story of You and I is still flowing from a pen. The draft of Man in Green Sweater with Newspaper is still a work in progress just like Bored Girl in Green Vest with Cell Phone though decades and experience may separate them. The homeless man eating a sandwich has loved and lost, while perhaps the little girl in a pink ballet dress has only ever known love (and may she be blessed for it). There will always be pain, sadness, and loneliness in this world, but accepting that someone else has experienced the same sort of heartache (or even worse) can only make the bearing easier.
We are not alone.
How do you incorporate empathy into your life?