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A Time for Radical* Empathy

There's never been a better time to practice showing up as a better human being.

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@Jim Humes/2020

*This title might sound hyperbolic.  But for those of us who have grown up in cultures that use the pronouns “me” and “I” to mark the center of the universe, practicing empathy can definitely feel radical.

A trip to the grocery store

Here’s what I mean: at the grocery store the weekend the panic was setting in, I blurted out “have a nice day” to the checkout clerk as I completed my transaction. She mumbled a half-surprised, half-what-the hell-are-you-thinking thank-you as she turned to receive the next person in line. And as my eyes followed hers, I could see a queue stretching beyond the kombucha case, the display of vegan donuts, hot bar, ready-made sandwiches, wine section, and almost to the craft beer display. People were ushering carts loaded with anxieties in the form of marinara sauce, boxes of pasta, rice, beans, lentils, paper towels, toilet paper (in stock!), cleaning supplies, canned fish, cartons of frozen foodstuffs, nutrition bars, dried fruits, beer, wine, whiskeys, and a host of other palliative products. And in that moment of walking from the checkout stand to the paraben-free wipes station outside of the front door, a feeling of turdishness passed over me for offering up the banality of “have a nice day.” This woman’s wake-up alarm most likely went off at 4 a.m., and her workday would continue until the middle of the afternoon. During this time, she would face hordes of nervous stockpilers, each speaking and breathing in her direction and otherwise ensuring that her exposure to this virus was ten-fold higher than the rest of us.

Context matters. Telling this woman to “have a nice day” when she’s battling the hydra’s head of shoppers came from a place of good intentions, but the message was formed and delivered by the tone-deaf part of my brain. Instead of spreading cheer and optimism, I highlighted that our realities were being sketched by different hands:

She: performing a series of repetitive, seemingly endless tasks in the middle of germ alley. 

Me: buying a few items for a cooking adventure with my daughter at home to kick off these coming weeks of rustication.

She: handling jars, cartons, produce, and packages with her blue-gloved hands that other people have touched and breathed on. 

Me: feeling relieved that I “survived” the shopping experience without having to wait too long in line.

She: needing permission and coordination to take a bio break, drink some water, or get something to eat. 

Me: driving back home in my (relatively) clean car to a recently cleaned and disinfected kitchen.

The deep sea of empathy

Empathy is on my mind these days, especially as our world spins off-axis in the face of this growing health crisis.  The lucky ones among us are slowing down, taking long walks, reading long novels, or reaching out to old friends. Others are staring into the loss of their incomes, jobs, businesses, and visions of the future. Some of us are healthy; others are hooked up to ventilators. Some believe that the worst is yet to come; others are Spring Breaking. 

Ordinarily, I’d find a way to minimize the discord. We are all well trained to filter out ideas, conversations, even people who threaten the bubbles we construct for ourselves. But in this we’re-all-in-this-together-whether-we-like-it-or-not moment, we need to understand each other more than ever, which requires taking a deep dive into the sea of empathy. The swimming here is hard. You can’t be numb to what other people are experiencing, or warm yourself with half-truths or rationalizations. Practicing empathy asks you to face emotions and realities that are raw and unburnished. It makes you look outside your own world. And it’s a requirement for building connections.

There are many definitions of empathy out in the world. The nursing scholar, Theresa Wiseman, paints a clear picture of this concept with her four defining attributes of empathy:

  1. To be able to see the world as others see it
  2. To be non-judgmental
  3. To understand another person’s feelings, and
  4. To communicate an understanding of that person’s feelings

Harper Lee reminds us how it feels in our bodies when Atticus says in To Kill A Mockingbird

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” 

To climb into each other’s skin (in a socially distant kind of way) requires slowing down and switching from the “me” channel to the “you” and “us” channels. It takes about five seconds to find the frequency. And it gives you access to a different—and possibly sublime—level of awareness that can allow you to feel instantly more connected to not only the people in front of you but also to people everywhere.  

A second trip to the grocery store

I took another trip over that weekend to a different grocery store. (Yes, my world has been revolving around the care and feeding of my family.) As I passed a worker stocking the aisle, I stopped a few feet away and said, “Thanks for keeping the food on the shelves for everyone.” 

Somewhat surprised, he shook his head, he replied, “Thanks, it’s hard work.” 

This exchange didn’t make me feel elated or proud. It was like I’d tried to chat up a marathoner at mile twenty. I felt his fatigue, along with an edge of grit in his tone that told me his job was far from done that day. But by relinquishing my context so I could consider his, we had a brief but decidedly real exchange that went beyond transactional have-a-nice-day niceties. I got a glimpse into what he was feeling at that moment, which was infinitely more informative and interesting than my quest for an elusive tub of Greek non-fat yogurt.  

Many hands at work

Many hands make the world go around. It’s easy to blithely refer to this as the supply chain. But at its core, it’s really a human chain that keeps our world humming. People bring food from farms to markets. People work the front lines of healthcare. People package, ship, and deliver all those boxes of stuff that we buy online to avoid the crowds. People own the shops, stores, restaurants that are in the process of shuttering. People educate our children, and are now scrambling to create distance learning curriculums. People police, rescue, protect, and deliver the services that keep our world propped up. And we are asking people to do more than ever to preserve our sense of normal at a time when the definition of normal is changing by the hour.

The more we practice empathy in this moment—the better we get at walking around in each other’s skins and finding ways to understand each other—the more we can minimize fear and friction. Anyone who has picked up the pieces after an earthquake, hurricane, wildfire, or other disaster has experienced how people naturally come together in these times. And while we need to avoid physically come together, we can practice opening our apertures wider, seeing the world through different eyes, and embracing the different ways people are making sense of the change we’re all swimming through.

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