Walk a mile in my shoes, we say with annoyance, frustration, or that worst of all "I told you so" tone to imply that someone would understand you better if they spent a bit of time being you.
Empathy, it screams. Have a bit of empathy, please.
In nursing school, that empathy was forced down our throats like a horse pill necessary for daily survival. They drilled us with the difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy being pity or compassion for someone, sorrow for their situation without getting so close as to actually feel their pain. Empathy, on the other hand, as we are taught, is the far superior alternative of putting yourself in someone else's position to better understand them and meet their needs. In doing so, we become closer to them and more effective in providing emotional support.
We as a society obsess over each other's constant lack of empathy. Everywhere you look, there is someone blaming the root of a problem on someone else's lack of empathy. A friend's callous comment, an ex-boyfriend's selfish act, a celebrity's poorly-chosen words, even a politician's one-sided choice. From a distance, one could think that the root all of the world's problems, according to Americans, siphon down to a lack of empathy.
I disagree. Perhaps it is because the majority of my friends are nurses, although I would argue it is not. But either way, among the people I know and love, the people I observe daily, there is an epidemic more damaging, more widespread, and more palpable than lack of empathy: insecurity.
I have thought about this often in recent months, as I transition into a new and different position at work. As I watch my body begin the inevitable changes that the passing of time will cause. As I have battled my weight and the struggles that come when I am not sick and my usual abnormally-thin self. When my body plateaus at a more realistic weight, causing clothes to actually fit and not every person I pass to comment on how skinny I am. I feel the need to shrink away in private as my BMI reaches "healthy," suddenly and unusually insecure in my own skin.
In addition, I have watched my friends as they transition through first pregnancies, difficult break-ups, wedding preparations, and the damaging general culture of female-driven feelings of chronic inadequacy. We try to battle against them but only bury ourselves deeper into our obsession over the unattainable greatness of six-pack abs and perky chests. Fooling ourselves into believing that attaining them will make any difference at all.
All I ever wanted was to be captivating, like in the movies when the beautiful heroine walks into the room and everyone stops. The clink of dishes dulls to silence. The hum of voices falls mute. Forks and hands suspended in the air, mouths full of food, paused mid bite.
My friends wanted to be doctors, lawyers, marine biologists. I wanted to be the girl who leaves you with a mouth full of food, fine silver awkwardly raised, wondering what could possibly be worse: to blink and miss my splendor as you swallow your steak, or to stay there in the moment, soaking me in, wondering why people chew their beef anyways as the tender bite in your mouth grows cold and tough.
When I danced, I felt this glimpse of playing captor. How funny it is to strive to trap people in your presence.
Even so, it is all I wanted. To hold them there, watching my body as I turned and jumped, or simply raised my arms in that beautiful way that causes your heart to skip a beat.
Ten years later, there is a man in my life. When he looks at me, I feel myself pulled back onto the stage, spun like Cinderella into a tutu and tights. In his eyes, I feel captivating. In some moments, as I turn toward him and again catch a glimpse of myself in his eyes, I begin to wish I could stay there forever. All of my insecurity, inadequacy, and self-loathing melt away. There is no room for them there.
This past week I celebrated my birthday. I spent the day showered with love. One person after another reaching out to express their kind birthday wishes. It brought me back to some of the birthdays of my past. The year my brother stayed up all night creating a beautiful painting for me, then served me breakfast in bed as the paint slowly dried. The year a dear friend filled my hotel room with balloons as our families were all out of town for a wedding the day of my birthday. These acts weren't just about a well-selected gift or a kind word. They were acts of love. The kind you perform for someone you love and value, the kind that leave the recipient feeling overwhelmingly cherished.
Yet again so very loved on my birthday this year. In fact, I feel so very loved every day. I started to realize how different the way I view myself is from the way others do. To me, I am 130 pounds of flaws. I could list them for days and still come up with more. I would tell you my overconfidence is a flaw in one breath and in the next that my insecurity is.
But to the people around me, I am none of those things. I am smart, funny, kind, compassionate, empathetic, tall, skinny, silly, confident, complex, vulnerable, growing, changing, and learning.
So explain to me this. If all of the eyes around me see me that way, why should mine instead trust my own voice giving me the constant list of flaws and faults? Why should you trust your own opinion of yourself over the eyes of those around you?
Perhaps the problem isn't so much walking in each other's shoes as it is seeing in each other's eyes. What if our focus has been all wrong? Perhaps it is finally time to change it, and then maybe, just maybe we can begin to treat our epidemic of insecurity.