There are some people who you like immediately. The ones that just seem to fit you somehow. This post is not about them.
This is about those other people. The strangers who get in your way in the line at the grocery store or the friends who annoy you with their complete inability to talk about anything but themselves. The people who don’t understand that the left lane of the highway is for passing (aka If you match the speed of the car in the right lane, I will tailgate you until you get out of my way. It’s probably just as well that I’m not driving these days…)
I’ll admit that my average reaction to these types of behavior in the past was generally something along the lines of “get out of my way” or “you are too stupid to live.” Harsh. Empathy score zero. After all, I can say things in the sanctity of my own mind that my polite, Minnesota self would never say to a person out loud.
But lately two strange things have been happening to change that. They’re both side effects of dealing with my new seizure-filled reality. There have been some interesting positive side benefits of having seizures, but I think this is the best one so far.
First, my reaction to those “annoying” people in my own life has been “wow, it would suck to be like that all the time.” To not know how to get your life together enough to get through a checkout line at the grocery store. To be so stuck in your head that you can only talk about yourself. To not know how to drive and have everyone mad at you all the time. To constantly do things that damage your relationships. Slightly more empathetic than “you suck at life.” Empathy score 5.
Second, my reaction to my friends’ complaints about their interactions with these types of people has been changing. This one is more drastic. I never realized how much my friends complain to one another about complete strangers before, but we do it all the time.
I have a dear friend who is a total sweetheart. (Okay, that sentence makes me sound like an 80-year-old. But this girl is so nice that people say things like that about her.) The other day she was complaining to a few of us about someone who was in line in front of her earlier in the day and who had some kind of medical condition that was slowing down the line.
I felt personally affronted by her tirade. Furious, actually. The psychology isn’t too hard to figure out here. I’m sure my seizures inconvenience strangers and the thought that they–people who don’t know anything about me–would be having these kinds of thoughts was painful. In my friend’s story, the person had a pretty serious and embarrassing medical condition. I’m sure it was emotionally painful for them to leave the house and be in front of other people. It probably takes huge emotional courage on a daily basis to just move through life. And my friend–who I love–was complaining because she had to wait for three extra minutes in line.
I felt kind of like the world was tilting on its axis because these two realities just would not reconcile in my mind. How could my friend be so callous? She’s not a callous person. How could she have missed the obvious pain of this person standing right in front of her?
Then I started paying attention to what people around me said over the next few weeks. And I realized that we (myself included) are collectively bad at empathizing with strangers. We give grace (hopefully) to friends, but are shockingly harsh in how we think about strangers’ behavior.
So… I’ve been making a list of how we can get better at this. How do we increase our empathy score? And here’s what I came up with. This is a four point list, but thinking it through in a specific situation is a five second process. You can spare five seconds, right?
- Consider how you’d feel in the other person’s situation. This pretty obvious. But we don’t seem to do it very often. For me, just this first step is often enough to help shift me to a more positive perspective. In my friend’s case, this one step would have changed her attitude about the person in line. His medical condition was obvious. She’s a good person. If she would have considered his perspective rather than her own for a single second, she would have given him grace. Knowing her, she probably would have actually gone out of her way to encourage him. But it didn’t occur to her.
- Consider other explanations for the other person’s behavior, preferably ones that don’t have anything to do with you. This one I thought of because I have been canceling plans a lot. And it would be easy for the person I’m canceling on to think it was because I don’t love them, don’t respect their time, don’t want to hang out with them enough, etc. In reality it often has nothing to do with them. I’m just tired and I need to sleep. It’s completely impersonal. Taking it personally is both unnecessary and unproductive. And it makes me feel guilty, which makes me not want to be around that person. Relationship damage ensues.
- Consider what giving the other person grace will cost you. For example, giving the person in line at the store grace would have cost my friend three minutes. The same three minutes she was going to have to spend waiting anyway. She most likely made this other person feel inadequate and in the way. It would have cost her the exact same amount to make them feel accepted and encouraged.
- Consider what NOT giving the other person grace will cost you. Hatred is not free. It leaves a mark. I know, I know. You’re thinking: “But, Kate, I don’t hate strangers. That would just be mean. I’m not a mean person.” Maybe you’re right. How about contempt? Superiority? Annoyance? Do you really think that those negative emotions–your judgement of someone God loves and that you do not know anything about–cost you nothing?
I’ll end with this quote, which is a pretty great summary of what I’m trying to get at:
That’s it. Go forth and empathize.
*Side note: Marcus Aurelius was a roman emperor. Apparently he wrote this as part of his reflections on service and duty. Of course, it was written while he was on a “campaign,” which I believe translates roughly to “slaughtering tons of other people.” But I think it is exceptional advice, so I’m willing to overlook that for the moment.