I was in the crosswalk in my pedestrian-friendly town making my way to the other side of the street the other day when I heard a car horn. I turned to the approaching car and said more loudly than I realized, “I hope to God you’re not beeping at me.” It was laced with what I call Jersey attitude.
“Actually I’m not,” the young woman said simply as she drove by.
So simply it disarmed me. Because it was only then I noticed that a parked car was poised to pull out into her path and she was using her horn in an absolutely correct way. To her credit, she did not “go Jersey” on me in return.
My destination that day was the gym, so I had plenty of time to mull over what had occurred. And it became obvious before I’d even pedaled five minutes on the stationary bike. Since having knee surgery last spring, I’m slower. My gait is more measured. I err on the side of caution when I cross. I step off the curb gingerly.
And, oh, did I mention I hate all of the above? That driver was a convenient scapegoat. I am not patient with myself and I assumed she wasn’t patient with me either.
Yikes. No tolerance for my own slowness.
Yet my empathy for people with canes or crutches or who are dealing with surgeries or illnesses of any kind has grown one hundred fold. After seeing death up close this year like I’d never seen it before, I am now more awed by humans dealing with grief and wondering how they carry on. Yet my lack of patience with my own inability to more quickly process a friend’s death is persistent and palpable.
What’s going on?
“What we hate in ourselves, we’ll hate in others,” writes Pema Chodron in When Things Fall Apart. “To the degree that we have compassion for ourselves, we will also have compassion for others. Having compassion starts and ends with having compassion for all those unwanted parts of ourselves, all those imperfections that we don’t even want to look at.”
OK, so if we acknowledge -- as I do here -- that lack of compassion for ourselves can cause us to lash out because we see our not-so-fabulous selves in another person or scenario, what’s next? I seem to be at some sort of tipping point in all this, flipping back and forth between exuding compassion for others and realizing it is vital to have more for myself.
“As we learn to have compassion for ourselves, the circle of compassion for others – what and whom we can work with, and how – becomes wider,” Chodron writes.
Goodness, this touches everything in our lives – our significant relationships, our secondary relationships, our religion, our politics, our work, our play, our parenting.
I’ve already given an example of it in my interaction with a stranger as I crossed the street. It could have been a cashier at the supermarket or the barista making my coffee. Who are we taking it out on that we don’t like something in ourselves? Isn’t it worth examining and in turn learning to accept more of who we are?
The idea isn’t perfection here, but cultivating empathy to improve our quality of life. Look how we respond to it in world events.
In sexual misconduct scandals like those that occurred in the Catholic Church and at Penn State, the crimes themselves angered us but the lack of empathy by those in power had us seething. There was more outcry about that because many of us cannot fathom keeping quiet when another person is being harmed. But beyond that, those to whom it was reported showed an appalling lack of empathy.
Look at our politics.
Can we attribute it to empathy that since leaving office President George W. Bush has respectfully stayed out of the political fray criticizing President Obama? He knows what it’s like to be second-guessed on every move and utterance. Perhaps he doesn’t want to pay it forward. Pretty empathic.
Night after night there are discussions on cable news about which presidential candidate has more empathy. A recent piece in New York magazine called “Mitt’s Stake” focuses on Mitt Romney’s nearly 10 years leading the Mormon church in Boston and how the guy prone to reaching out to others is not highlighted much in his current campaign.
“In [Romney’s] religious life [his co-congregants] see the feeling for others that he’s never conveyed in public – they see the contours of his empathy,” writes Benjamin Wallace-Wells.
Obama, on the other hand, has never shied away from his background as an empathic community organizer.
What do these situations say about approaches to leadership? Will Americans feel one’s empathy more and perhaps read the other as a message that the ability to reach out and help others find their way is not a part of the self that’s worth mentioning?
I coached an executive for a year and we worked quite a bit on building his empathy. Watch Undercover Boss and learn, I told him. See how the employees stand up straighter when they feel they’re being heard and understood.
Empathy is not just a nice thing to have. It’s absolutely crucial to healthy interaction whether you’re governing or giving your friend an ear.
I am clear that my expanding heart is making me a better person, even on the days I slip up and yell at a driver who’s done nothing wrong.
I’ll keep working on it. I so hope we all do.
Nancy Colasurdo is a practicing life coach and freelance writer. Her Web site is www.nancola.com and you can follow her on Twitter @nancola. Please direct all questions/comments to FOXGamePlan@gmail.com.