I read an article a few years ago about the phenomenon of catching yawns. This is something I’m quite prone to, so I was intrigued. The premise of the study was that people who spontaneously yawn at the suggestion of watching someone else do the same is that these people have empathy. Those who don’t not only lack empathy, but they may be more prone to exhibiting sociopathic behaviors. I often reference this article when I’m working with a patient and we spend part of a session yawning back and forth. It always gets a chuckle… realizing that neither one of us is a sociopath.
Last week, I came across a quote I posted on Facebook a while ago by one of my favorite authors. It was worthy of re-posting; I even made it my cover photo.
Indeed. If we are guided by our ability to relate to the feelings and needs of others, human or otherwise, and not just ourselves, our world would be a far better place. So in the spirit of chasing wellness, let’s talk about empathy.
Miriam-Webster defines empathy as the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner and also the capacity for this.
In a very simple sense, at least in American society, there seems to be a struggle between entitlement and empathy. I’m at my wits end with what I see in the media about how people are treating others these days. I hope you are, too. I’ll give you a non-political analogy:
As a runner and cyclist, I often get rattled by rude drivers. My knee jerk reaction is to yell at someone who gets too close to me in their car, which is obviously not a good idea. To my fellow fitness enthusiasts, I’m sure you have just as many stories as I do about near crashes. If I’m following all of the road rules, signaling turns on my bike, minding my own business, wearing bright colors so I can be seen, etc., am I not entitled to carry on with my activity without fear of being hit by a car? Or is the driver of the car entitled to speed along without the annoyance of a several second delay because of my presence? We’ve all been the one in the car. But not all of us have taken to the streets for exercise. I can usually tell who else has by how they treat me on the roads. What if everyone had to experience what it’s like to ride a bike or walk/run on the streets while sharing the road with vehicles? Would their behaviors change knowing what it’s like to experience a close call?
In my studies to become a physical therapist, one of the things we did was to participate in disability day. On this day, each first year student was assigned a physical disability, and we had to carry out our day as if we had that functional limitation. I was a paraplegic, meaning paralyzed from the waist down, and I was confined to a wheelchair. The idea was to give us the opportunity to develop empathy by walking in someone else’s shoes. We had specific tasks, too, like to attend class all day and to go to the store and make a purchase. My biggest challenge physically was getting in and out of my second floor apartment. I had to rely on my roommate and neighbor to hoist me down the stairs in the chair, which is scary if you’ve never experienced this. I rode a bus in the wheelchair, strapped into the floor like I’ve now done for so many others in wheelchairs. I visited the grocery store and had to get something off the top shelf by myself. A woman was horrified that I used a wooden spoon I found hanging on strip to slap an item off the top shelf. She looked at me in disgust and almost wailed as she ran away from me. Would it have killed her to ask me if I needed help? I also ordered a coffee drink from their coffee bar. The barista asked me in a very slow, loud voice if I would like whole milk or skim milk, as if my apparent physical disability was an indication of my mental capacity. I thought I had empathy toward folks in wheelchairs. After all, my grandfather became a quadriplegic in his later years. But the assignment did its trick. I don’t treat people in wheelchairs the same way as I did before this experience.
Let’s get back to prevailing news of the season, the virus. I find it disturbing that people are crying “my body, my choice” when asked to wear a mask. Isn’t it ironic that some of these same people crying about their choice to wear a mask don’t want women to have the same privilege? Do they even think about the health and well-being of others? What about your grandma or grandpa? The healthcare providers who continue to fight the virus? Those who are more susceptible to infections? You can’t look at statistics of the categories of people who are succumbing to the virus most and think, well, they don’t look like me, so I’m good. Wearing a mask or social distancing aren’t political statements. Those actions show that you have empathy toward others. That’s it.
Empathy is something most of us are born with to some extent. But we can also work on fostering this behavior. None of us are perfect. Even if we consider ourselves empathetic, we can still work on thinking outside our comfortable bubble. I’ll go back to my wheelchair experience. I thought I knew what it was like to rely on a wheelchair for mobility, especially since I essentially grew up watching my grandfather do this. But until I actually had to use one, I really didn’t get it. I didn’t expect people to treat me with disgust or assume I was also mentally impaired. And that was just for one day. Imagine the cumulative stress of dealing with that treatment day after day after day… and now think about that using any other appearance that is different from yours. And even then, it still might be difficult to grasp the significance of how much more challenging life can be.
As we in America are struggling to deal with the Coronavirus and “quarantine fatigue” in addition to everything else going on in our country, let us not forget how to be empathetic toward our fellow humans. It seems this is a behavioral quality lacking in our society on many levels right now. There are so many very simple ways we can show empathy toward others. Besides wearing a mask while running errands, you can start by thanking the people working right now for you so you can buy groceries or get take-out. A small act like this makes a big difference in one person’s day. So try to see the world through someone else’s eyes, and be kind.
It never hurts to work on developing empathy. Try reading a book about a different culture or experience. Travel to another country or even another part of your city and see how others live. Talk to someone who doesn’t look like you; this could be someone of a different color, religion, physical ability, gender or sexual identity, or age. See the world from someone else’s eyes. I dare you to step outside your bubble. As always, I hope you all are safe and healthy.