Empathy and ‘Shared Experiences’

“I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.” ~ Walt Whitman

Society has a problem with silos. I don’t mean the ones that farmers put grain or corn in. I mean metaphorical silos. Whether it’s a neighborhood, town or city; we seem to look at them as being a separate entity – much like an enclosed silo. We consider a nation being enclosed by its borders. We assume they ebb and flow, making decisions on their own volition. But really aren’t they just a collection of relationships … relationships dictated by individual people interacting with each other? And a single interaction between the right (or wrong) two people can alter the entire dynamics of what is enclosed within their ‘silo.’

In more extreme cases one of these interactions can change the direction of decision-making (or policy) for an entire nation. We saw this in the Middle East and world’s conflict with ISIL. The murder of one young American girl tipped the scales so much that a intractably divided United States Congress united in near unanimous agreement to allow the President to send ground new troops to Iraq and Syria. And how can we forget how World War I started. The assassination of a seemingly nondescript duke in Austria set off a cascade of unprecedented military action by intertwined alliances.

With the wellbeing of our communities being dependent on individual relationships and the events that stem from them, isn’t it tantamount that we discuss ways to establish positive and productive dynamics in the neighborhoods that make up our communities? Shouldn’t we care about how the people of our communities interact and communicate. Even the most seemingly benign remark and response could set off a ‘butterfly effect’ of unintended consequences no one can foresee. While we can’t mediate everything that happens in our community, we need not to. We need only to provide a platform or ‘space’ that encourages interactions that are as fruitful and as synergic as possible. Then maybe we can maximize our resources and realize our potential rather than constantly mitigating the damages from antagonistic interactions … or worse yet ignoring them and let them metastasize.


“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Atticus Finch ‘To Kill a Mockingbird”

At the heart of any relationship is communication, and at the heart of any communication is an understanding of the other person, or empathy. Empathy is being able to remove yourself from your own perspective and ‘walk in their shoes’ or ‘see the world through their eyes’ (the metaphors are endless). This isn’t easy though. It’s easier just to step up on your soapbox and preach, letting ideology take over – however well intended.

Empathy isn’t sympathy though. I view the road to empathy as sharing another’s experience. It’s not enough to look at the world on ‘the other side of the tracks,’ you actually have to take that risk, step across and look at the world from that other side.


The phenomenon of ‘Shared Experiences’

Congressman Patrick Murphy of Massachusetts made headlines a couple of years ago when he slept on the streets of Boston one night to see what it was like be homeless firsthand. This is what I call a ‘shared experience. He was living homeless, if it was for just a day. And I’m sure it’s an experience that will never leave him and hopefully will alter his public policy views and actions accordingly.

However noble Murphy’s effort was, he still wasn’t homeless though. He knew he had a place to go after that night in the cold. He knew the hunger he felt would pass as soon as he wanted it to. The effort he had to make to be sure he found a safe place to close his eyes (relatively speaking), didn’t have to be repeated the next night.

“The greatest good you can do for another is not just share your riches, but to reveal to him his own.” ~ Benjamin Disraeli

Every member of our communities is unique and adds to the fabric of the community. Everyone has something to offer and everyone should be heard – no matter their age or social standing. It’s up to us as individuals, as a community and as a society to find that something and help them see it. Because not only does it benefit them … it benefits all of us.

Empathy can be taken to the next level when one multiplies these ‘shared experiences’ and joins someone in their world for a longer period of time. An ‘experience world’  is not spending a night with a homeless person, it’s being homeless. It’s sharing their world to the point that it’s not their world … but your world also.

Cottonwood cartoon


Ten years ago I went on what I call my Nomad journey. In reality, I was homeless for three years – two of which was with my daughter, Alex, as she finished high school in Southern California. Some of the time we spent in motels, and some of it was in a tent – a good tent, but a tent nonetheless. My recruiting company collapsed, a combination of the economy, changes in my niche (printing), and probably as much as much anything – just being burned out after fifteen years of wrangling with my product – people.

Without going into copious detail about the peaks and valleys of a life unsettled and uncertain, I do want to share my experience at Cottonwood. After Alex finished school and moved to Washington (to work for Apple), I camped exclusively. The last campground I lived at was Cottonwood, about two hours north of Los Angeles. My car had broken down, so I hitched along with a couple who was also on a Nomad journey. After landing in Cottonwood, they left after about a week to venture to New Orleans. I stayed, carless (not careless) about ten miles from civilization except for my fellow Nomads scattered throughout the campground.

Ironically, Cottonwood turned out to be a community as close-knit as any I had ever lived in. J.W., a grizzled old cowboy who had done a stint in San Quentin, became my site mate and eventually my tent mate (after Jake his Border Collie had a run-in with a skunk he decided to share with J.W. – in his tent).

But J.W. was just one member of my community. There was Kenny, a thirty year-old just out of rehab. And there were others of all sorts. They were all my neighbors and my friends. We trusted each other and looked out for each other. We shared stories each night dinner. And most of all we shared dreams. None of us believed we be living the Nomad lifestyle forever.

After a month and half, Kenny, J.W. and myself ended up leaving Cottonwood to set up and manage a new KOA Campground an hour down the road. A couple of years later I found out a couple of our compadres from Cottonwood had passed away. We reflected on the times we all shared. Cottonwood was no different from in any other community. You always lose a few people who we have shared worlds with.

No one at Cottonwood was remotely like me or had previous experiences like I had; living in Newport Beach, on the water in the Bay Area or a in downtown high-rise in Minneapolis. Nor had I had experiences like them. But that didn’t matter. In fact it made it better, and my life was enriched from my time there and with them. Every member of our community was unique and added to the fabric of our Cottonwood world.


Rebuilding the ‘Middle Ring’ using ‘Shared Experiences’

This concept of sharing ‘experience worlds’ only seems logical if we want re-build the ‘Middle Ring’ relationships we need as the foundation of our neighborhoods and communities. We need to use ‘shared experiences’ to rebuild our communities for the benefit of not only of us today, but also for the others who will join us later. Even if these ‘shared experiences’ are as brief as the neighborhood picnics I grew up with in Green Valley in Minot, North Dakota – or as long as the one I had at Cottonwood, they provide us that valuable opportunity for connection with those we’d not likely to connect with otherwise.

Left to their own volition many people will associate only with others like them (including age), not taking that chance to step outside their comfort zone. But if we won’t make this step on our own, how can we truly acquire the empathy and the trust needed to have constructive conversations, the conversations required to build the relationships necessary to create the consensus and collaborations needed for the neighborhoods and communities that serve all its residents?

So how can we create the opportunities for our community members that will result in ‘shared experiences’ and even delving into others ‘worlds?’ If we truly want to create sustainable inclusive communities, that should be what we ask ourselves.

And it shouldn’t have be as drastic as spending six weeks together in the dirt in a tent.


If you haven’t, I invite you to start by delving into my ideas by reading the series, On the Road to Your Community’s Perfect World,” This is my articulation of how we can create better, more inclusive, unique communities as the solution to our society’s pressing issues. Consider each week’s post a Mile Marker (MM), a cerebral off-ramp from the highway of your daily routine, taking a you little further down this road to a better version of society.


You can follow me on Twitter at @clayforsberg.

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