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According to the Buddhist philosopher and writer Pema Chödrön, empathy is never a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It is a relationship between equals. It is only when we know our darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others.


This past summer, on my way home from visiting family in Georgia, I sat on the airport terminal floor near my gate, put on headphones, and began editing photos during my two-hour layover.


As I worked, I noticed a stunning woman—about my age—walk by. She had dark hair, tan skin, and wore a long dress and a felt hat. The woman strolled over to one of the empty seats next to me and sat.


After maybe five minutes, she tapped me on my shoulder. “Would you mind watching my stuff?” she asked with an accent that sounded middle-eastern, although I couldn’t place it precisely. I replied in the affirmative.


Twenty minutes later, she returned with some snacks and thanked me for watching her things. 


As she resettled into her space, she pulled a roll of tissue from her handbag. Seeing the woman’s tissue made me think of my sister, who was battling a cold during my visit. I wondered if this woman was also sick.


“Did you catch the summer cold that’s going around?” I asked.


“No,” she said softly as she looked at her feet.


There was a heaviness to her response that hit the floor like a lead ball and rolled in my direction. At that moment, I knew I could either nod and return to my photo editing, or I could reach out.


“Do you want to talk about it?”


Silence.


“My father died yesterday.”


Silence.


Instantly, I thought of million different things: what could I say to ease her pain? What should I say? I read a lot of psychology— I wonder if there is a technique I could use that would be helpful?


But none of these would have helped. They were all strategies intended to do one thing: protect me.


The desire to quickly blurt out, “Oh my god, I’m so sorry for your loss,” was on the tip of my tongue. And while it would have been easy to do so, it would have also been bullshit code for, “I’m not going there with you.”


In order for me to fully connect and empathize with this woman’s experience, I would have to confront my own loss when my father walked out on my family when I was a child and the years of abuse that followed when he was replaced by my alcoholic stepfather.


So that’s what I did.


I let the silence linger and the discomfort of reflecting on my loss churn within me. I took a breath.


“I’m so sorry.”


“Thank you,” she responded.


Silence.


“He became ill suddenly. In the last few days, we thought he would come out of it. And then, yesterday, he passed.”


“This hat belonged to him. It’s silly, but I wanted to feel close to him today, you know?”


The young woman continued to talk, and I continued to listen, leaning into my own discomfort, awkwardness, and vulnerability.


As we continued to talk, I learned that she was a professor of theatre in Israel with a focus on puppetry. We bonded over our fondness for the arts, she shared her snacks with me, and we essentially had a normal conversation. Or at least, as normal a conversation as two theatre geeks could have.


After about 45 minutes of talking, silence filled the space between us.


“I wonder why more people don’t do this?” she asked.


“You mean, talk with one another?”


She nodded.


“I think people have a strong desire to connect and be seen, but they’re afraid.”


Silence.


“Thank you for talking with me. I needed the distraction,” she said with a smile.


No one reaches out for compassion and empathy so that you can teach them. They reach out because they believe in our capacity to know our darkness well enough so that we can sit with them in theirs.


But too often, when we walk into a dark space, the tendency is to flip on the lights. We negate the feelings and experiences of others, offer canned responses or advice, and continue to wear our emotional amour.


One of the many paradoxes of being human is that we’re hardwired for connection but we’re also hardwired to protect ourselves. We want to be loved, but we don’t want to get hurt. We want to take risks, but we don’t want to fail. We want to reap the benefits of connection, without sharing the most intimate parts of ourselves with others.


But life doesn’t work that way.


You can’t love someone without accepting that one day you will have to watch them die. You can’t create meaningful art without enduring rejection. You can’t empathize with another person’s pain without being willing to love and acknowledge the parts of you that evoke fear.


If you want to experience the most beautiful parts of life, you must be willing to embrace the painful and scary parts too.


The question isn’t, “what would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?”


The question is, “what is so important to you that it doesn’t matter if you fail?" How you respond to that question illustrates what you truly value.


For me, I value connection, compassion, vulnerability, and growth. Do I always adhere to these values? Of course not. But they are always there for me to reflect on and guide how I respond to the world around me.


The armor is easy to slip on but hard to take off. So, I have to remind myself: How much discomfort are you willing to endure to get what you want?


Pause, breathe, act, fail, repeat.


Published 2/15/2020




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