The Dire Need For Empathy
I remember a couple of years ago when the middle-aged locals of my town created some nostalgic page on Facebook—you know the type—this was me in front of that deli that’s now a T-shirt shop, oh there’s Patti twenty-five years ago. It’s a common enough occurrence. On this page, someone posted a photograph of me and my girlfriend at the time and I wasn’t terribly thrilled about it. It was one of the most prolific periods of my musical creativity and it involved copious amounts of Ritalin and pot. I remember, at the time, I was feeling great every day, but when I saw the photograph, I noticed that I looked like a maniac.
Someone who I never heard of before wrote a comment about what a tweaker I was and how his dad once went into the bus station where I was working and had a less than genteel experience trying to buy a bus ticket from me. It hurt my feelings. It also made me see myself in a completely different light. I knew my story, but for the first time, I could see that my narrative was my own. Other people had a wholly different opinion of who and what I was.
So, which one was more accurate?
After feeling awful about myself for a few weeks, I put it out of my mind. It was far too painful for me to have to be faced with the reality of what I looked like to the rest of the world as I tried to navigate my way through my twenties in a whirlwind of excess and insanity. Recently, however, while engaged in a conversation about my past, I re-visited that moment from a couple of years ago.
The conversation I was having became awkward. The person I was talking to just kept right on going at their frenetic pace and I found myself stuck in a morass of regretful mud. Their words may as well have been the muted trumpet sounds of the teacher from The Peanuts movies. I was right back there in those feelings of embarrassment and shame that I left behind a couple years ago.
Later that day, I began to find a little perspective. Sure, I was a wreck and people saw me in a very unflattering light; but there is value there. And I meant to find it.
Perhaps a few years ago, all I was able to do was feel shame and embarrassment, but recently new feelings were awakened inside of me. I didn’t like when someone viewed me dismissively as this or that without seeing my deeper meaning in the world and I am sure that I have done the same to other people in my life. This uncomfortable feeling sparked empathy inside of me and helped me to develop a more profound concern for others.
That girl standing in the intersection panhandling with the makeshift sign, that unkempt guy sifting through the trash for empties—these are all real live humans who lined up in first grade to go out to the playground, who cried when they were ignored by their preoccupied mothers and fathers, who took to addressing that pain with what was available to them—ineffective intoxicants that slowly destroyed their souls along with the emotions they did not want to feel anymore.
They are not some subhuman subset of the population that you and your more fortunate dad should spend your time trying to diminish into a mean-spirited anecdote designed specifically to make yourselves feel more important. Or, at least, they shouldn’t be.
Addiction is presently running rampant in our society and although this is tragic, in some sense it has helped put a more human face on who is being affected. It is no longer just those strangers from a different caste system as you—it is your neighbor’s son, the kid who mows your lawn and your nephew. People who actually have a story and a meaning in your eyes. People you have no problem relating to anymore. The strange thing is that you could’ve always related to the victims of this fate—it’s just a little bit easier now.
Do not mistake what I am saying for some self-righteous soapbox rant—as I mentioned, I too have looked upon the less fortunate with stereotypical judgement and mean-spirited humor—and maybe it is all too human for me to have finally seen the light after my feelings were the ones being hurt. I don’t argue with any of this.
I am simply pleading with you to take a moment and try to humanize that person you are “but for the grace of God--ing” as you go through your more important daily routine. For, if the other person really missed out on God’s grace arbitrarily, you might owe it to them to at least give them yours.
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