“Resolve to be tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant of the weak and the wrong. Sometime in life you will have been all of these.” ― George Washington Carver
Standing in line to purchase a cup of coffee and a bite for breakfast, I watched as the gentleman in front of me took his bakery item from the young lady at the cash register and began to walk away to find a table. Reminding me a bit of the paper towel commercial where a person can see what is about to spill but can’t get there fast enough to prevent it, I stood helplessly watching as his bakery item went flying out of the slick parchment paper pocket in which it had been contained. George Washington Carver’s words speak to us whether it is a young person, an aged person, a person striving, and even the weak and the wrong. What would you have done in my shoes that day?
The young lady had stepped away from the counter and didn’t see what happened, so as I often do, I spoke up. The gentleman had bent to pick up his food from the floor and moved to find a place to sit. I let her know what had happened, in a tone that said what my words did not — “Please offer to replace that.” She hesitated for just a minute and then found him on the other side of the counter and asked if he would like a replacement for his bakery item, and he smiled and accepted. The restaurant wasn’t really out a lot of money, but they most likely will be rewarded by his sharing the kind gesture of the young woman.
What would you have done? Many people might have cringed and felt sorry for him, but I know I’m often different than those around me. The phrase “mind your own business” has been used several times in reference to my speaking up or reaching out to help people. Why are people so lacking empathy, I wonder. Is this a new thing or has it always been that way?
It seems many people suffer from Identifiable Victim Effect (a new term for me). “The identifiable victim effect (IVE) refers to individuals’ tendency to offer greater help to specific, identifiable victims than to anonymous, statistical victims.” The report I found references several studies over the past ten to twenty years that looked at how empathetic people are in cases where there is an identifiable victim as opposed to instances when it’s a more general grouping of a category of victims.
One of the examples was Baby Jessica, the toddler who fell down the well back in 1987. The outpouring of donations at that time was huge. People were sending money to help the family in the rescue efforts. Was Baby Jessica the only child in the world to be lost or were her parents the only parents in the world hurting? Absolutely not, but the research shows that the public was more empathetic because they could identify the specific victim. That is what separated this family from the number of anonymous victims suffering at the same time.
If you were standing there when the man dropped his food, would you have felt his frustration? That is what empathy is — being able to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes in order to understand their feelings and perspective in a situation. And it is empathy that it seems is lacking in much of the world today.
We seem to be willing to entertain that there is another point of view, but we often seem unwilling to try to see it through their eyes. We think our vision is clear enough. Brené Brown once said, “In order to empathize with someone’s experience, you must be willing to believe them as they see it, and not how you imagine their experience to be.” It isn’t always easy because we only know what we’ve experienced, right?
My empathy has been on high alert for a while now. When I see someone who is homeless, I want to know their story, so I can know why they see life as they do. When I hear someone angrily attack another person’s point of view, I feel that anger and try to learn more about the person to understand what in their experience drives them to feel that way.
And after a lifetime as a white person, I’ve noticed my empathy for people with different color skin is heavier than normal. There is no way to experience life as they do because I haven’t had generations of people who look like me treated so horribly. So I try to read and listen to their stories and picture myself in their shoes, and it is painful, and I cry.
Nothing has needed empathy as much as trying to understand the perspective of a female, though, lately. Well, I am a female. I’ve been a victim of a man’s actions that caused my life to change, and I have still tried to understand the perspective of others who’ve had different experiences. Without them trying to put themselves into my shoes, it will be difficult for them to understand.
They can never understand why my relative who helped me find medical assistance when I felt incredibly alone basically saved my life. They can never understand how painful handing a baby to a stranger to love and raise would be. And they will find it difficult to understand how these experiences have helped me develop into a woman who is passionate about much and who works hard to be empathetic and compassionate when it comes to the inequities other people suffer.
And still, I must try to put on the shoes of females who haven’t lived my incredibly beautiful, sometimes painful, life. I hope they might try to do the same for me.
Whether it’s a disagreement over the way a person folds towels or the way the criminal justice system works, if we want to be part of a more caring culture, we really have to make an effort to allow for disagreement while attempting to understand. We need to be proud of our own life while not belittling the journey of someone else.
We need to open up with our point of view and listen to other people’s experiences. We might all put our pants on the same way, but we aren’t coming in through the same door. Greet someone as they are coming in through the back door, side door, or the bathroom window and give yourself the opportunity to feel something different.
Susan Black Steen is a writer and photographer, a native Tennessean and a graduate of Austin Peay State University. With a firm belief that words matter, she writes and speaks to bring joy, comfort and understanding into each life. Always, she writes from her heart in hopes of speaking to the hearts of others.