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(Painting by Liza Ezhevskaya)

(Painting by Liza Head)

A one, a two, a one, two, three…

The day begins, unfolding in a geometric progression of regular plans, emails to write, things to do on a flat screen of the computer, everything is two-dimensional.

These are the days when I feel strongly the frailty of other people. That elderly gentleman walking up to the store in slacks and an off-white, starched dress shirt when it’s 98 degrees outside. He is honoring tradition, a sense of decorum, hearkening back to a time and place where you dressed up to go out, even to the nearest mercado. It hurts to see the shirt hang straight down off his spare shoulders.

Every one of us carries a certain burden, a certain doubt. Standing at a light with the windows down, the chain-smoker in the next car over hollers, “Cheer up, kid, it can’t be that bad!” Thanks, lady. I wish you wouldn’t kill yourself slowly with those cigarettes. But really, I appreciate the sentiment.

Then at the next light – “Hungry, every bit helps”. C’om on, guy, why won’t you get a job? He can’t get a job, he has no permanent address, no clean pants to wear for the interview, no toothpaste, no quiet evening at home to get his paperwork together. He is living the permanent vacation. Doesn’t even know what he wants, but every bit helps. I pull out a sock stuffed with soap, deodarent, hygiene items and the other sock, and flag the homeless man. “Thanks,” he says, “I’m wearing a pair of those right now.” And he sure is. “I’m sorry we’ve collectively failed you” I murmer and thank God for the green light.

Some of us – brave and powerful, some – meek and barely looking up. Slinking through life on our bellies, it’s like for a very brief moment I am given insight to all of the hurting.

At the gas station, I pay and cannot help notice her hands: just regular hands but ones that someone has loved, someone has kissed tenderly. These hands that wring out clothes before drying them, that peel potatoes and soak to the elbow in dishwashing detergent. Many years ago, they might have been the tiny baby fingers that a mother gently caressed, or maybe they had perpetual fingernail dirt and no love at all.

People are strange, when you’re a stranger, faces look ugly, when you’re alone. I want to pull in and hide inside my shell, but it is transparent and there is no place to shield yourself from all of the faces, the hands, the carefully tucked-in shirts, the buffed shoes, the frailty, the vulnerability. This is what Jim might have felt. They are so painfully familiar, and yet, you feel strange.

And when you’re strange, faces come out of the rain. No one remembers your name…

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Often I marvel at the profound intuition that Jesus exhibited when talking and teaching. Why should it be so surprising that he knew the needs and quirks of the human soul, after all, He created us. But what continues to strike me is that by and large, we seem to have gotten the purpose behind the message wrong. In his teachings, Jesus instructs us to treat other people in a certain way, and we naturally think that this is done for the good of those other people. However, we are mistaken. It is, first and foremost, done for the good of us.

One of the most prominent teachings Jesus offers is that of forgiveness. We are to forgive when others do wrong against us, whether they ask for forgiveness or not; regardless of what is in their hearts, we are to let go. And for good reason: the internal anger that is the opposite of forgiveness is terribly destructive. On a physical level, it keeps us grinding our teeth to a pulp, our faces are taught, our jaw muscles hurt. We do not take deep breaths and our brains are short of oxygen. No wonder we cannot think clearly. Countless papers testify to the negative physiological effects of anger. In terms of our intangible inner life, anger keeps us emotionally constipated. We cannot move forward. Dwelling and mulling become our pastime, productivity and creativity dwindle. Also, without forgiveness we continue feeling like the victim, helpless and bitter, and live our lives accordingly. So it turns out that letting go is first and foremost beneficial for the one doing the forgiving.

A closely related topic is that of humility. With word and action, Jesus taught his followers to think of others better than of themselves, to be humble, to let go of pride. Granted, everyone benefits when the haughty become the meek, the world would be a better place with less arrogant people. But here too, I find that the person that benefits most from this abandon of pride is the one that lets it go. While you are busy preserving your self image, that frail ego inside that shudders with every threat, you could be out joyfully trying new things, falling on your face and getting up again, interacting with people you wouldn’t normally come in contact with…We fear that if we let go of our pride, our whole being will whisp out of existence. At least I fear this. But what I discover is that with every bit of that perceived “self” that you give up, you are actually gaining psychological leg room. You can think freer, plus you have more energy to do so, since you are not wasting it on preserving the dignity of the self. And, incidentally, letting go of pride leads to less cases of that pride being hurt or offended, which helps with not getting angry and having to forgive those who “sin against you”.

Through all of New Testament scripture we are reminded to pray for those close to us. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus takes it a step further and instructs his followers to pray for those who persecute them. Prayer, in my mind, has always been an exercise that you do for the benefit of other people. Please heal my child from his pneumonia. Please strengthen my grandparents in their time of need. Please be with that individual who yelled hurtful things at me…Surely, this kind of petitioning with prayer is done for the sake of the recipient of the asked-for blessing.  Surely, but actually, not really.  When I pray, work is being done within me. As I pray “for my enemy”, I am inevitably forced to think of them not in terms of what they’ve done to me, but in terms of what they might need prayer for. This in turn forces me to see them as a person, not a source of my pain. Prayer gives way to empathy, which in turn brings about healing. Through prayer, you realize that we’re all in this together, not very different from each other, all needing forgiveness sometimes; all needing love.

Love. Yes, this is the glue that holds it all. The two most important commandments are to love the Lord your God, and to love your neighbor as yourself. If you think about it, why would the Lord, who is perfect love and who, within the Trinity, already gives and receives his love, need ours? From the first glance this seems to be the case: love God because he needs it, love others because they need it too.  But actually I think there is another, perhaps most important component: love because you need to love. You were designed to love, and you are realized as a human being through sharing this love.  Not surprisingly, close relationships between people are a key characteristic both of the so-called “Blue Zones”, pockets of communities with the most centenarians, and of the countries with the most happy people overall. When we live surrounded by love and expressing love, we live longer, happier lives.

This is why I think Jesus was a talented therapist: by following his instructions and focusing on doing good to others, we are in fact healing and transforming ourselves.

Sitting at a stoplight, I must have looked quite distressed. Next to my car, a monster truck pulled up and the man in the driver’s seat also had his windows down. We sat there in silence at the stoplight. It was dark, the kids were quiet in the back. Suddenly the man turned to me and said out of his window, “Hey, it’ll be OK”. I said, “Thank you.” The light turned green. We drove away.

Then just the other day, I was sitting in my car, alone, parked at the grocery store. I was receiving a private therapy session from one of my favorite bands, listening to their song. Then a woman came up to the car parked next to mine, started putting away her groceries. She peered into my car and asked, “Are you alright?” “Yes, I’m okay. I’m just sitting here listening to this song…” I replied. She didn’t seem convinced. “You’re sure you’re going to be OK?” I swallowed and nodded. She continued, “It’s a beautiful song. What’s the name of the band?” I told her it was a Russian band. She told me she likes a band with five of them Celtic women singing in it. Did I know that band? I nodded in the affirmative. Of course I did. “Well alright, honey. You take care now…” I smiled again. “You too.” I said.

I wondered what is it in these people that allows them, so effortlessly, to show empathy and compassion to others, and what stops some from doing it even when they want to. It must be an internal peace with self. It must be a lack of self-consciousness. “What if they’ll think I’m weird that I’m talking to them? What if they just want to be left alone?” Such thoughts cross the mind of the failed comforter. These are my thoughts, though I know the truth – nobody wants to be left alone when they are suffering.

Two episodes I regret: one – we were at a playground in San Diego, and there was a young couple with a small girl there. The man was saying hurtful things to the woman, I didn’t hear them but I could tell by the body language. He was bent over her, almost, she was shrinking into herself, holding on to her little girl. Then he walked off, she put her girl in the swing and started pushing, silent tears rolling down her cheeks, choked sobs, shoulders shaking. I wanted to come up and tell her that it will be alright. That she needs to leave him. That I understood. I wanted to hug her because I knew that’s exactly what she needed. She was so alone. Alone with her grief. But I just stood there, paralyzed, thinking up excuses, angry at myself because I couldn’t get over myself and just go and help her.

Two – my husband and I were at a coffee shop and at the next table there was a group of three people, getting ready to pray. I wanted to get up and just go over to them and ask them if I could pray with them – pray for them, and then maybe they could also pray for me? I needed someone to pray for me. Where two or three gather in My Name, there I am with them. And so I wanted to be there, where He said He would be. But I just sat there and stared at them hungrily. Oh, the regret.

There in the parking lot I also thought about Pierre Bezouhof from War and Peace – about his final transformation, his coming to God, his realization that the most important things to be had in this life are right here and that God is right here too. Through tremendous pain he lost his inhibitions. He also lost his doubt. Now he no longer questioned the decisions he made. He just knew, and acted on it, and didn’t analyze it. He had peace. Through the difficult times in my life I have felt that God was trying to cleanse me of my inhibitions as well. He wanted me to lose so much that in the process I would shed the baggage – the pride, the self-consciousness, the fear. And sometimes I feel these things slipping off, agonizingly, slowly. And other times I feel like I am clinging to them. At those times I am fearful because I know that this means that there is more pain to come.

by Liza Ezhevskaya of LizardArtWorks

Listening to our answering machine messages, I come across the recording of an older woman talking in a tight, concerned tone…

“Hi, it’s me. Listen, I was thinking, maybe we should give it another try. You know, just try again, maybe? Please call me back. Give me a call, okay? Please?”

She must have dialed the wrong number and the androgynous standard greeting on our phone didn’t tip her off. I scan through the call log and deduce her phone number. I call her. She answers:

– Hello?
– Hello m’am. My name is Anya. I just wanted to let you know that yesterday you called my phone and left a message…
– What? What do you mean?
– You left a message on my cell phone, the number is (485) 487-3876, you probably dialed the number by mistake and left a message about…
– Oh yes, I understand…
– Yeah. I just wanted to tell you that I got it. Which means…that probably the other person didn’t…
(She still seems a bit confused. Flustered, I continue…)
…which means you may want to check that number and call them again…
– Oh, ok. Thank you.

* * *

A while ago I came across this website, http://www.unclaimed.org. It links you to State Assessor websites where you can search to see if the state you live in (or lived in) is holding money that belongs to you, ie. unpaid insurance claims, last payment installments, etc. I was hooked.

I searched first my family, all of them, in all of the states where we lived. Found a last payment waiting my husband in California (since then we’ve contacted the assessor and got the payment). Then searched family friends – found some more money waiting for some of them. Then searched co-workers. Found a HUGE sum waiting one, joyously burst into his cubicle and announced, “You have $1200 waiting for you at the assessor’s office!” But it didn’t stop there.

Think about it: literally billions of dollars of unclaimed funds, waiting for their rightful owners, and the rightful owners not knowing that there is cash for them several forms away. Some of my family members’ last names are pretty common, and for one, Nayerman, there was actually several other “Nayermans” in California that also had money unclaimed. I had to do something. So, at the end of last year, I wrote letters.

“Dear Mr. and Mrs. Nayerman,
Recently I was doing a search to see if some of my family members had unclaimed funds. I searched for my grandpa’s last name (Nayerman) and though he didn’t have anything, I noticed that you did. I wanted to let you know, in case you didn’t already. I am attaching a print-out of your info from the official assessor’s website so that you can be assured it’s legitimate. I hope this comes as a pleasant surprise on the eve of the holiday season!

All my best,
Anya”

A couple of months later I checked up on my couple from California. Their record said: Funds claimed.

Score.

* * *

Sometimes I have to go to work really early, sometimes in the dead of night, escorting and interpreting for Russian engineers doing work for the International Space Station program. We worked out a system with my employer where the same driver that picks up these Russian specialists drives by the McDonalds next to our apartment complex and picks me up too. The driver’s name is Kevin. The story goes like this:

So I’m waiting for Kevin to pick me up at McDonald’s. It’s around 5am. He’s running late and so I call him on my cell and leave a message: “Hi Kevin. This is Anya. I am waiting for you at the McDonald’s, as planned, it’s almost 5:10am and you’re not here…Please give me a call. Thanks!”

Eventually I end up walking and he doesn’t mention the message the following day when he picks me up again. He drops me and the specialists off and tells me to call him once we’re done, so that he can drive them back to the hotel. Three hours later, we’re done and I call. Another message: “Hi Kevin. Well, we’re done here in Building 20, really enjoyed those breakfast burritos – thank you! We’re ready for you to pick us up…”

There minutes later I get a text message from Kevin: “You are contacting the wrong person”. Turns out, it was a different Kevin.

* * *

Car note left on our wind shield: “AWESOME PARKING!!!” with a pen-drawn sketch of the “Right way to park”, with the wheels facing straight into the parking spot, and “Wrong way to park” with the car diagonally wedged into the rectangular parking spot, wheels creating an imaginary hypotenuse between the opposite corners of the lot (the way we had parked).

* * *

Car Note left on a gray Ford Mustang: “I was backing out and accidentally grazed your car. I am sorry! Our car is insured – please call me at (***) ***-**** and we’ll figure out how to cover your damages (if there are any). Again, I apologize.”

There is damage. I find this out when the owner calls me the next day and says he only noticed the damage when he went to open the door and it was jammed. At the end of the conversation he says, “And I just want to tell you that I really, really appreciate that you left that note. Most people would have just driven away…” I reply, “Well, I just did what I hope someone else would do for me…” “Yeah,” he says, “me too”…

A recurring conversation:

– ..and that is the reason why I’m …
– Yes, I get it, but…
– No, you’re not letting me finish.
– But I know what you’re going to say!
– Can’t you just try to understand me?! I want you to understand!

In so many different ways, this is problematic.

I have noticed that somewhere along the lines, the meanings of “understanding” and “agreeing” blurred into one continuum. On the unconscious level, I think the “logic” works like this: you can understand me –> you can see my logic –> you can empathize –> you can see that there’s no other way –> you must agree with me.

If you think about your own conversations where the idea of understanding comes into play, you’ll see what I mean. Lately I have been ruminating on what “understanding” another person really means, not least because I have been reminded, berated, pleaded with and begged to offer understanding to a certain individual. The problem is that my understanding of the concept of “understanding” is radically different from his.

After my ruminations, I have only more questions. For example, can you understand someone and not agree with them? Would that merely mean that you aren’t fully understanding them? Can you understand or “know” someone better than they know themselves? And if so, what makes YOU the authority on the inside workings of another individual?

Maybe I should give an example to tether my scattered thoughts to. Say a friend of yours is an alcoholic. They steal, cheat, and lie in order to be able to sustain this habit, although they know it’s harmful and morally wrong. They have a conversation with you, in which they try to show you their side of things. It goes something like this:

– I was abused as a child. My father was an alcoholic, mother died when I was three. There was no stability in my life, only parties and drinking orgies that my father held at our house. We were constantly on the move, so even the relationships I did form were only transitory. I became depressed and suicidal. Drinking was the only coping mechanism I knew, so I turned to drink….
– Yes, but you can stop. You see that it’s getting you nowhere. It’s dangerous and it’s wrong to steal or lie for a drink..
– But don’t you see, this is all that I know…
– I understand, but still..
– No, if you really understood, then there wouldn’t be a “but still”…

In other words, if you can fully submerge yourself into the logic of your fellow speaker, once you can think the way he is thinking, then you not only understand him, but empathize, agree, and worse – like him, see no way out. This seems to be the ruling view of what it means to understand someone. And it includes not only the ability to see the logic and rationale behind an action or behavior, but to have full, complete background knowledge (informational and existential) which leads to the decisions governing a person’s actions. My question is: can you really understand a person, and disagree?

Another very interesting thing about knowing yourself. A friend of mine once mentioned that nobody can know a person better than they know themselves, and if you think you see something in a person, and that person doesn’t agree, then you’re wrong. In other words: the identity of a person is that, which the person chooses to believe about him or her self. And if you see something in them that they don’t, it is your moral obligation to convince them of the presence of this trait, or accept the fact that it’s not really there. This was a concept that I could not wrap my mind around. What if you see sloth in a person who claims (and fully believes) that it’s depression? Or, what if you see a desperate grief in what the person tries to show as brazen indifference? Can you really show them that they are delusional or in denial? Do you owe it to them (as my friend suggested)? Or is it better to allow this self-preserving mechanism to continue working?

On the other hand: what gives you the authority to presume that you know someone better than they know themselves?

Which brings me back to the initial conversation, or to many similar conversation which were abruptly brought to an end when, driven to tears of exasperation after the incessant demanding for being understood, I finally exclaimed, “I understand what you are saying! But I don’t accept it.” To my surprise, the response was remarkably calm, “Well, there you said it. Now I understand.”

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