See What I See

Empathy is a day-to-day struggle of sorts, a test of our compassion and capacity for listening with understanding. It pushes us to break from the limits of our own stories, our own biases, and see someone in a different light.
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Back in the day, I used an acerbic wit to get by. I was what your Grandma Mia called a "smart ass." It seemed legit in a Darwinian sense. I was a fat kid who peaked in coolness and athletic dominance in the sixth grade. By middle school, I needed to don a sarcastic shield to make it through the day, which involved sitting in the soprano section of choir, attending golf practice and memorizing my lines for the school play. Absent the appropriate armor, I would quickly become the punching bag every bully-in-training used to let out their own insecurities.

Anyway, whenever I wore this quick wit with pride, admiring my own quips as they shot off my lips, Mia inevitably said, "How would you like it if someone said that about you? How would it make you feel?" See, Mia preached the Golden Rule. She was a "spiritual" Catholic, part hippy, part peacekeeper. But more than anything, she was scared that my newfound teenage 'tude would persist in perpetuity. The rule -- to treat others as you would like to be treated -- made sense to middle-school me. I shouldn't be an asshole to someone, because it sucks to be treated like an asshole. It seemed so obvious, so definitive. Hell, it's "golden" and a "rule," two words not to be messed with. And I can certainly understand Mia wanting me to learn the basics of why being a dick isn't okay even if you're in pain.

As I've grown up though, Sam, I've realized that the Golden Rule doesn't quite capture what's become my guiding light: empathy. Think about the concept again. "As you would like to be treated," is a bit presumptuous. It assumes that the way you want to be treated is preferred, that it trumps how someone else might want to be treated. What if you prefer brutal honesty to less direct communication? What if you prefer complete transparency about who you are and what you care about to keeping some things to yourself? What if you just want to be heard but aren't looking for advice? This list could go on and on, made even longer by culture and context.

Take your own story for example. Every morning, when you arrive at daycare, Sarah and Ellie holler, "It's Sam!" They run toward you, arms open, blonde hair flip-flopping from side to side, and proceed to give you a huge hug. And who can blame them -- that smile and those locks will no doubt make the girls flock. You, in response, scream bloody murder and say, "No, I need space," over and again. See, in most contexts, you're an unabashed, full-body hugger. If there were an award for best hugger in the greater-Seattle area, kid, you'd be a contender. But it takes you a while to warm up in social situations. You need a few feet of space and a few minutes to feel comfortable. I get you, so I get that. But these girls, well-intentioned adherents of the Golden Rule, left you in tears.

To me, Sam, empathy is the higher-order principle. Standing in someone's shoes, seeing what they see, feeling what they feel, is hard. Really hard. Like Jenga-when-drunk hard. We're quick to evaluate, make snap judgments and put people into boxes that neatly define their experiences and identities. The presumption of knowing or simplifying another's story is as human as breathing itself. As you get older, if you're not careful, traits and characteristics substitute for listening, for endeavoring to uncover and understand. Clothes and kicks, haircuts and facial hair, the way someone talks, crosses his or her legs or gestures in conversation, amount to a sort of "good enough" composite. Labels like hipster, conservative, punk, prep and a thousand others trump all manner of explanation. You know it when you see it, and you've seen it before.

This is exacerbated by the color of our own lens. Our experience dictates and directs our interpretation of the present. The first impulse is to confirm a preconceived bias or reaffirm an existing narrative, a story we've seen or told before. The older we get, the more difficult it can be to welcome a new way of thinking. Our views are harder to shake. It gets even harder because the armor others employ make it nearly impossible to see them for who they really are. We've all been burned in battle -- by unrequited love, friendships gone wrong, promises unkept. If we're not careful, these experiences create a protective shield, a layer of separation between us and the world around us. The space between, we reason, is easier to tolerate than admitting we might have more to learn about ourselves and one another; that maybe, just maybe, there is strength, even courage, in being authentic and vulnerable.

Empathy is a day-to-day struggle of sorts, a test of our compassion and capacity for listening with understanding. It pushes us to break from the limits of our own stories, our own biases, and see someone in a different light, through a different lens -- to question whether they need a hug or some space. It forces us to take off our own shields and just be. Only then, Sam, will you see what others see.

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