I’m a firm believer that the solution to almost every problem is empathy. It’s the skill I exercise most often in doing my job, the ability to get in someone else’s head and see the world through their eyes. Admittedly, that’s for the possibly-scorned practice of “selling them something”, but I like to think that at it’s best, what I’m really doing is trying to understand what they need or want and how to help them get it, or help corporations tasked with “selling something” at least treat them like human beings, not just faceless “consumers”.
But empathy is also the skill I try to exercise most in all my interactions with the world. I try not to get frustrated with service people when I have to wait in lines or have a bad customer experience. People are trying their best. I try not to react with anger when people on the street are rude or oblivious and do me wrong. Who knows where they are at that moment, mentally and emotionally.
Empathy. Empathy and patience can go a long way.
The recent verdict on Trayvon Martin (and I suppose, technically, on George Zimmerman) has inspired some really thought-provoking responses about race, justice, and equality. The message this case sent to millions of people in America was truly lacking in empathy for those identifying with the boy in front of the gun, and overly sympathetic to the man behind it. But the response from Questlove for NYMag was particularly resonant, because it dared to be particularly personal.
I recently told a friend one of these stories: I live in a “nice” building. I work hard. You know I work hard. My logic is (naïve alert in 5, 4, 3, 2 … ) “Well, there can’t be any fear of any type in this building” — you’ve got to go through hell and high water just to get accepted to live here, like it’s Dartmouth or UPenn. Secondly, there are, like, five to eight guards on duty 24/7, so this spot is beyond safe. Like, Oscar winners and kids of royalty and sports guys and mafia goombahs live here. One night, I get in the elevator, and just as the door closes this beautiful woman gets on. Because of a pain in the arse card device you have to use to get to your floor, it just makes it an easier protocol for whoever is pressing floors to take everyone’s request, like when you are at the window of a drive-thru. So I press my floor number, and I ask her, “What floor, ma’am?” (Yes, I say “ma’am,” because … sigh, anyway.) She says nothing, stands in the corner. Mind you, I just discovered the Candy Crush app, so if anything, I’m the rude one because I’m more obsessed with winning this particular level than anything else. In my head I’m thinking, There’s no way I can be a threat to a woman this fine if I’m buried deep in this game — so surely she feels safe.
The humor comes in that I thought she was on my floor because she never acknowledged my floor request. (She was also bangin’, so inside I was like, “Dayuuuuuuuuuuum, she lives on my floor? *bow chicka wowow*!” Instantly I was on some “What dessert am I welcome-committee-ing her with?”) Anywho, the door opens, and I waited to let her off first because I am a gentleman. (Old me would’ve rushed first, thus not putting me in the position to have to follow her, God forbid if she, too, makes a left and it seems like I’m following her.) So door opens and I flirt, “Ladies first.” She says, “This is not my floor.” Then I assume she is missing her building card, so I pulled my card out to try to press her floor yet again. She says, “That’s okay.”
Then it hit me: “Oh God, she purposely held that information back.” The door closed. It was a “pie in the face” moment.
I laughed at it. Sort of.
Inside I cried.
He goes on to relate how hearing about the verdict made him feel, and remarking to a friend that the message this sends to him is, “You ain’t shit.” Read the rest, it’s a powerful piece.
More empathy means fewer moments like this that callously judge others as wrong or less than ourselves. More empathy means fewer people acting out in anger and violence and fear in situations that don’t need to escalate.
Need a boost of empathy? Read a few posts at the We Are Not Trayvon Martin site.