Hey y’all. First of all, let’s just get it out of the way: yes, I’m a horrible bloggess, leaving y’all hanging for months like that. Guess what? You’re reading a depressed person’s blog. Welcome to inconsistency.
What can I say? It’s been a brutal 2014 so far. My wife was in the process of opening a bar, which made for some shitty and angry times at Casa de Buddha. Worrying about how to pay the bills when you’re too depressed to get out of bed and find yourself some work is scary enough. Then you add this external situation to the mix and just…bleh. It was pretty Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfe up in here.
But the bar is open (yay!) and doing well (yay!) and things seem to have settled down in my fevered brain a bit. I’m sure that’s the result of a number of things, but I’ve been thinking about empathy and perspective a lot and how learning to have those two things might be the most important things you can learn if your goal is happiness.
One of the things I’ve been particularly focused on when I meditate in the morning is empathy. I think I’ve known for a long time that I lack it, but I’ve never called it out as such or realized that it was a pretty big character flaw. I think the old me, the predepression me, was more of a hardass than even I was aware of. If you had a problem, my solution was always the bulldozer solution, the PULL YOURSELF UP, WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU?!?! solution. Shit, I start 62% of my sentences with “You know what you need to do is…” I’m not saying sometimes that isn’t a good approach, but it was my approach for EVERY problem. There was no nuance in my advice-giving, no accounting that each problem is different and can’t be tackled with this same wrecking-ball approach.
And then I realized that this blunt, unsubtle approach was really tied to a lack of empathy, a feeling I had that went something along the lines of “Why are you even whining about this shit? Pull yourself up by your own goddamn bootstraps or shut the fuck up.” Or as my friend Liz once put it, “You get one whine with Kathryn.”
But then suddenly, you’re not able to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps and maybe you need a little help from the people around you. And maybe you’re so grateful when your wife just understands that you need to be left alone or just be petted, or you become extra grateful when a friend checks in every now then because they know you’re down, or you suddenly feel a lump rising in your throat when a stranger shows you even the tiniest spark of kindness. And in that moment—that raw, exposed, and human moment—you finally get the importance of empathy, the need to hear another person say “I’ve been here too. I understand.”
I find myself coming back to the Dalai Lama’s assertion that ALL human beings—from the richest oil baron in Texas to the poorest, sickest children in India to violent skinheads in London—have two things in common: to seek pleasure and to avoid pain. The idea being that when you have (or think you have) NOTHING in common with someone, you at least have those Two Things.
And motherfucker if that shit doesn’t help me be less of a dick to people. I have literally found myself dealing with someone unpleasant or annoying and thought “Two Things,” which serves as a tiny reminder that I have no idea what this person is living inside their head. Maybe their son is on a respirator in a coma. Maybe their dog just died yesterday. Maybe their husband just left them last week. Just the reminder “Two Things” triggers a reaction in me that seems to say “cut this person some slack.”
And once you do that—once you make that decision to cut someone some slack—it’s freeing. You let go of anger and fear, which are biggies that prevent you from connecting with other people. You stop being angry because you realize you do have something in common, and you stop being fearful because by recognizing the Two Things, you understand human motivation better.
I’ll give you an example: my wife’s bar is not in the best neighborhood. It’s a neighborhood that went to seed decades ago and is now overrun with junkies, dealers, and bona fide crack hos. Walking from my car into the bar past the groups of twitchy black men loitering outside used to make me nervous and fearful.
But as I started seeing them more and reminding myself of the Two Things, I found myself starting to make eye contact, then starting to say hi, then starting to share a cigarette with them or bringing them food, which led to conversation. Once I started talking to these dudes and making a connection with them, the fear went away.
Their life circumstances were very different than mine, but ultimately, they’re just like anyone else, trying to scramble their way through life best as they know how. It’s just that one of us had the advantage of being born white and middle class in America and therefore started out life with circumstances that automatically give you a leg up in America. If you’re born poor and black in this country, you already have obstacles to overcome before your playing field is level. And when you start thinking that way, you stop seeing these guys as society’s throwaways. And you start to have what?
Empathy allows us to feel connected to one another. “Hey brother, I know what you’re going through, and it sucks to be you right now.” Shit, it’s why fucking support groups are formed: “I need to know that there is someone on this planet who knows what it’s like to feel as horrible as I do now.” It makes us a little less lonely, a little more hopeful that “this too shall pass.”
Connectedness. It’s why we’re here, no? For what kind of a life is a life without it?