Might We Practice Empathy?
By The Nature Generation Founder and President Amy Marasco, written for her monthly column, “A View From My Window,” in the Purcellville Gazette
I am an optimist. I wake up each morning full of hope and joy. The first glimpse of the day may be one of sunlight streaming into the window or it might be the soft sound of rain washing against the panes or the quiet stillness that a morning snowfall offers. Quite frankly, I have learned it does not matter. I relish the fact that a new day awakens and the chance to make it wonderful rests mostly on my thoughts, my actions, and my attitude.
Many people have thoughtful morning practices of meditation or prayer. I start my days with the practice of singing an old fashioned ditty to my beloved dog Mack who raises an eyebrow, does not criticize my singing and nestles back into my bed hoping for more sleep. I stretch, shower, and whistle or sing again—because it makes me smile and fills me with joy. My morning routine also serves as my armor as I face a world that feels increasingly dark, troubled and divided.
Must our world be so discordant, exacerbated by such routinely harsh rhetoric? Might we turn the tide if we were just a bit more empathetic to another’s plight? I wonder if we will have the curiosity, desire, and stamina to learn from those periods in history when darkness and anger prevailed over light and composure. What turns the tide toward peace, caring, kindness and love? Is it leadership? Is it by a shared fight against a common foe? Is it individuals making the decision to choose joy against all odds—and to act upon accordingly in daily interactions? Or is it simply the authentic practice of empathy that allows us to reset and move forward?
Empathy was actively taught in my family. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes was a mantra in our household as I grew up. My father, from an Italian immigrant family, experienced discrimination first hand, yet he channeled his hurt into empathy for others at every turn. His lessons to me came in the most unexpected ways, such as in the simple advice he gave me nearly fifty years ago on the evening before my first school dance. Before leaving the house, he held my hand and said, “Amy Louise, you should dance with every boy that asks you to dance.” When I scrunched my nose and questioned this advice, he asked me, “Do you realize how nervous the boy will be and how rejected he might feel? Put yourself in his shoes, and simply and kindly agree to just one dance?” To this day I try to heed his advice, and when frustrated and upset by actions of family members, friends or those in my community—local or global—I do try to imagine how the other person feels, what story is really behind their anger or fear. And, in my life, I’ve found if I take the time to offer one dance, I can more effectively understand, and often bring calmness—if not resolution—to troublesome situations.
To address systemic wrongs, I believe we have to make our entry point wherever we can with our own voice from our own life story, supported and fueled by our individual passion. While I often find myself impatient with incremental social change, I don’t think we can move forward on any issue until we take the time to understand its root cause and stay open to dialogue, as difficult and uncomfortable as that may be. Conversation and listening, conducted with mutual respect, are central to humanity and cultures making progress. But, the practice of true empathy might be even a more fundamental and powerful tool.
Empathy is not a selfless act, given we are all tied to the fate of humanity, to one another, to the resiliency of our planet, to the health of our local and global communities, to our ability to learn to live in more harmony. If we don’t practice empathy, I am not sure we can progress. Empathy allows us to imagine and care for the fate of forests we may never walk within; to help people who hunger that we may never meet; to care about and protect coral reefs damaged by pollution that we might never see; and to support people wronged whom we may never know. Empathy can also empower us in routine ways, such as letting the mom with tired and cranky kids go ahead of us in line at the grocery store. The kind of empathy I dream of is one that resets our thinking and changes our daily behavior and interactions.
If we could tap into the capacity for global empathy, just imagine our world.
If each of us would be brave enough to accept just one dance from an unlikely partner—it might be the first step that changes the world. Let’s try!