Monday, December 21, 2015

Using empathy is like riding a bicycle

I can ride a bicycle, although it's been many years since I've actually done so. Let's say I'm walking through the park and I see a bicycle lying abandoned on the ground. What are my choices?

I could start by not noticing the bike at all, because I'm thinking about something else.  I could see the bike, pick it up and zip away. Or maybe I'll see it but I won't pick it up; I could hesitate because I'm scared that I'll fall and get hurt. Maybe I'm feeling tired and don't want to ride just then. Or maybe I'll want to be mean; I'll think about pushing it into a lake, or putting holes in the tires. All of these are choices I can make with that bike - to ride it, to ignore it, to break it. Having the skill to ride has given me more options, but doesn't stop me from doing those other things. I have to make a choice.


I lead an isolated life. I live and work at home, and don't get out much. So when I finally do get out and see people, I slip easily into judging them. I haven't practiced, so again and again I see the bicycle (of empathy) and I choose to not ride it.

Today, for instance, I see a group of women sitting at a table. I overhear them talking and think, "Look at those women over there, wearing pink jumpsuits, talking about how droopy their flesh on their arms looks and reminiscing about old episodes of Blossom. They look like they are having fun, but why do they have to play into those stereotypes of women? Those women are horrible."

Then I remember that I'm the person who wants to try to connect with everyone. I'm trying to understand everyone's point of view. So I think; what if I was sitting with them? Would I be joining their conversation? If we were friends, would I be sneering at them? Probably not. I'd probably be smiling and laughing, just like the others. I'd join in and ask, "How did we ever think Joey was cute (whoa!)."


Instead of "Growing Empathy" maybe a better name for this blog would have been, "How I try to use and grow my own capacity to empathize with others, and make the effort to use it as often as possible." Although, that would have been a bit long for a Google search. :)

I still believe that empathy is an emotional investment that we can choose to make. I want to learn to have empathy, but also to choose to use it as often as possible, and not to fall so easily into the trap of judgement.

It's time to go ride a bike. Want to join me?