Category Archives: empathy

Ideal qualities of humanity on display

Being forced to stay put these days reminds me of the East Coast Blizzard of 1996, when Washington, DC, Maryland, and Virginia were declared disaster areas after more than two feet of snow was dumped over one weekend. After being snowbound a couple of days and optimistically believing our local weather forecasters that the storm was over, a lot of us ventured out to work with walls of snow surrounding us.

The bad news is that we were all sorry we had left the haven of our snowbound houses because many of us had to struggle mightily to get back home. The good news is that what I witnessed during my commute warmed my heart and gave me hope about us as a people. I was so moved by what I saw happening that I journaled the experience.

My commute required a metro subway and a train. On the first leg of my trip home to the Maryland suburbs after a fool’s errand to get to work in DC, a woman near me on the metro was squeezed in so tightly that she was almost sitting on a man’s lap while holding on to a stabilizing pole. When she apologized, he responded that he understood that she could not help it. (It was not possible for him to get up and give her the seat.) After about a minute, the woman who was hanging on just above the gentleman’s lap turned, smiled, and introduced herself to the gentleman and the woman sitting next to him. They smiled back, introduced themselves, and began to make small talk. They chatted easily as if they were at a social event. They were of different races and, judging from the manner in which they were dressed, probably did not live in similar neighborhoods.

Although we were patient as we invaded one another’s personal space, we were aware that the metro was taking much too long to move ahead from the station. After a while, there was an announcement regarding mechanical problems, which seemed to serve as a signal for people to settle in and begin conversations with one another. Chatting seemed to help because the crowding was paralyzingly tight. No one could move. As can be the case when there is a captive audience, some joker began shouting off-color jokes, and one brave passenger yelled that we didn’t want to hear what he had to say and that he should pipe down. As the joker quieted, the conversations resumed.

To our great disappointment, there was another announcement after some time that the train was out of service. With a collective groan we prepared to offboard. While we had been inside the disabled metro, more people had come to the platform and it was jam-packed when we squeezed off the metro. There was no room to push back behind the caution line, and many of us were dangerously close to the edge of the platform. Incoming trains were as packed as the one from which we had disembarked. Needless to say, none of us on the platform were getting on any of the approaching trains.

Did I mention how cold it was? It was freezing.

As I stood squeezed so tightly that I could not turn, I heard a woman’s voice somewhere behind me yell out the question, “Does anyone know how far we are from Union Station?” Several people yelled back that it was the next stop just four or five blocks. The woman who asked the question said, “It might be better to walk if we have to count on getting a train here.” Several people, as if they knew her, said that it was much too cold to walk the distance. Not facing the woman, I yelled out that I’d be glad to share a taxi if I could get back to the exit. She said, “Sure, let’s do it!”

My fellow commuters twisted and turned in their heavy coats, shifted their brief cases and bags, and helped me push through the crowd to the escalator where my anonymous taxi partner waited. We gamely took the escalator up out of the station, feeling proud of ourselves for our initiative.

When we emerged from underground, we were in a deserted Judiciary Square. We looked at one another and commented on how quiet it was. It was eerily like being in a ghost town – there were no cars nor people, but there was a whole lot of snow. It didn’t take long for us to realize that there would not be a taxi on these unplowed streets.

As we trudged through the deep snow, we realized that we didn’t know what direction to walk to get to Union Station. She was from Virginia and I was from Maryland, and we’d only taken trains to our destinations in DC. We hadn’t walked too far before a lone man passed us, and we asked directions to Union Station. We were so relieved when he pointed us in the right direction.

We walked single file, encouraging and helping one another as we slipped and fell a number of times on the way. We finally arrived at Union Station and embraced warmly, wishing one another safe travel home before parting for the second portion of our journeys on our respective trains.

Finally getting on a train, I didn’t mind the newest delay as a result of ice on the tracks. Just as before, I witnessed people spending the time in community. Two women sitting opposite one another struck up a conversation and realized that they both worked for the same large communications corporation. They talked about their career paths. A man I thought to be in the military said to the woman next to him, “You see that hat that woman up front is wearing? My daughter has one just like it.” He went on to tell this stranger a funny story about his daughter, who he described as an archaeologist who was beautiful and a really fine human being, just like her mother.

I listened to these conversations and was heartened because these people did not take their frustration out on one another. I was amazed at the amount of camaraderie among a diverse group of strangers. Although it was not a wise decision for any of us to have attempted the commute during this record-breaking blizzard, this experience was a break from being snowbound and isolated, and it was an opportunity to actually look at one another directly and engage one another in a basic human-to-human exchange. If I had to sum up the collective attitude, it seemed to be that all were of one mindset: “We’re all in this together, and there is no one to blame. Everybody is doing the best they can.”

The history that I want to recall is that disasters – regardless of the degree or kind – often pull people together in a manner that displays our ideal qualities of humanity. Like no other experience, disasters can promote a feeling of community and common identity in the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

Up close and personal…

I’m remembering previous times when everyone around me was frightened, but the scary thing was not up close and personal.

  • During the first years of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, when we would hear the piercing siren sound, our teachers would direct us to quickly scramble under our tiny desks and to cover our head with our hands.
  • When the rain became an electrical storm, our teachers would urge us to move quickly and quietly into the cloak room where our little coats were hanging on low hooks. I remember covering my face with whatever coat I was near.
  • When I was at home and there was loud thunder and crackling lightning, my grandfather would turn out all of the lights, cover the mirrors, and tell us to be very quiet.

These were scary times, but they were not up close and personal.

It was the second month of my first semester in college and my roommate and I lay on our narrow beds facing one another listening to the radio and talking about what might happen because of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Would we die any moment because of what sounded like an impending nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union? We were frightened, but this was not up close and personal.

In October 2002, the “DC Sniper” randomly killed ten people and wounded four. Whether going to the grocery store, pumping gas, or walking on the sidewalk, there was fear that one could be gunned down any time without provocation or warning. I recall being so frightened that I actually did walk a zig zagging path down the sidewalk in DC in order to make it more difficult for the sniper to get a good shot. It looked crazy but it was a suggestion on how one might stay alive. Despite the generalized fear, this was not up close and personal.

Today, COVID-19 – or the Coronavirus – is up close and personal. The virus is likely the most impactful phenomenon that the people of the world have experienced, and its historic significance cannot be overstated. All of our lives are being touched in one way or another by the circumstances this pandemic has caused.

Because this pandemic is up close and personal, it is my hope that it will stimulate more compassion and selflessness when the first instinct might be something else.

 

 

What’s your personal motto?

On February 25, 2020, CBS hosted Democratic presidential candidates in South Carolina for the final debate before Super Tuesday. For the last question, the candidates were asked to share what they thought was the biggest misconception about them and their personal motto. I was most interested in their personal motto:

  • Tom Steyer writes a cross on his hand each day to remind himself to tell the truth and to do what’s right, no matter what.
  • Amy Klobuchar grounds herself by remembering that politics is about improving lives.
  • Joe Biden’s motto is, “When you get knocked down, get up, and everyone is entitled to be treated with dignity no matter what or who they are.”
  • Bernie Sanders referenced Nelson Mandela for his motto, “Everything is impossible until it happens.”
  • Elizabeth Warren looks to Matthew 25 for her motto—actions done for the “least of these” have been done unto Jesus.
  • Pete Buttigieg also used a biblical reference, seeking to “live by the teachings that say if you would be a leader, you must first be a servant.”

I don’t know whether having a personal motto or a theme one uses to remain personally grounded is a “thing” or not, but the question to the presidential candidates made me think about what my personal motto might be.

Some years ago, when I was up in the mountains of Colorado, I had an epiphany that there was a pattern to my thinking and behavior that could be codified into an anagram that I could easily recall when I needed something to hold on to in order to keep from falling off the tightrope that I often found myself on.

I easily recall my personal motto with the anagram FIRE. While I have changed some of the descriptors to the anagram on occasion, two ideas represented by each letter of the anagram remain constant:

F is for fate and faith

Whether the situation is positive or negative, fate is hard for me to reckon with because my first reaction is to use logic to understand the why and the what of the unexpected circumstances in which I find myself. When I can’t make the connection between cause and effect, I think about life as a crap shoot – sometimes we win and sometimes we don’t. On the occasions when fate appears to be negative, I go to the other concept for the “F” in my anagram.

I rely heavily on faith. Because I have so much evidence to support my belief that it has been faith that has kept me in the game, this is not an empty promise or self-righteous bromide for me. Recalling that I have successfully come through other situations that I thought were impossible, and knowing that I will eventually be whole again, is what faith is to me.

I is for initiative and integrity

Initiative has two interconnected meanings for me: it both spurs me to get up and do something and pushes me to make something different, to innovate. Initiative keeps me thinking and creating. While I’ve sometimes thought life and work would be so much easier if I could just leave things as they are and go with the flow, I’ve always wanted to make something better or add something more. More often than not, my initiative / innovation has been on target and helpful. On the occasions when the vision of what could be was not realized, the disappointment never stopped me from having the desire to invent another way to move forward.

In my anagram, the letter “I” also reminds me that integrity is an important value that I want to include in all that I do. I live this value by doing my very best to do what I say I’m going to do, even if it might be as insignificant as being on time for an appointment. My goal is to always “walk the talk.”

R is for reflection and respect

As the theme song from the 1980s and 1990s sitcom “The Golden Girls” goes, reflection is “a pal and confidant.” If anyone is with me for any period of time, that person knows that I get a lot out of reflecting on what has happened and what I might learn from experience. What I write in my blogs are products of my reflections.

The other thought that “R” helps me recall is respect. Reflection and respect are often connected because my reflections are usually about interactions with people and what my role was in the experience. Did I say or do all I could to demonstrate that I had respect for the other person? Was I able to think of our communicative relationship as “I-thou”?

E is for empathy and energy

Empathy comes naturally to some people. I can recall crying as a child just because another child cried. My folks said that when I did this, I was just too sensitive. In addition to a predisposition to feel with others, as a professional counselor, I have a lot of practice in expressing empathy as a team member in work situations. I learned that it was not okay to restrict my empathy for peers and a chosen few. In order to accomplish the goals of the workplace, empathy and understanding had to be a commodity everyone could share.

I call on energy to fuel my initiatives because they are usually a reaction to inertia and resistance to change. In order to get results, one has to be able to press on. I call upon energy, then, when I don’t want to continue in the fight, when I don’t care about the brass ring and just want to settle. I call on energy when I fall down literally and figuratively and have to tell myself as Hercules Mulligan says in the play Hamilton, “When you knock me down, I get the f*** up again!”

Having been encouraged to share my personal motto, I’m changing the title of my blog to “The FIRE This Time” – an adaptation of James Baldwin’s title “The Fire Next Time” – to allow me to expand the breadth of my subject matter and to connect to my personal motto anagram when appropriate.

Writing satisfies a personal yearning, and I’m grateful for the outlet this blog provides. I share my thoughts and experiences because I’ve learned so much about myself from reading about the experiences of others in memoirs, essays, and personal stories.

The last thing I want to do is to come across as if I think I have the answers, or that my experiences give me the wisdom to know how others should be or what others should do with their life. I only know that thinking about the meaning of the words that make up my FIRE anagram helps me go through the dark tunnel that leads to the next checkpoint on my journey, and I am grateful for each of you who joins me on this journey of Faith, Initiative, Reflection, and Empathy.