Empathy and “Shared Experiences”

2021 and the tenacious staying power of COVID-19 has brought us a total unique set of societal circumstances and redefined our relationships with those around us. Whatever was considered “normal” before, probably no longer exists. How we co-exist with our families, friends, neighbors and business collaborators will be up to our own creating – not dependent on the norms of the past. While many view these times of uncertainty as scary – I look at them as exciting. Whether we like it or not, change has been thrust upon us. We’ve received a free pass to reinvent. We have to own it.

This piece was originally written in 2015 as the second chapter in my “Road to Your Perfect World” series. Now is time to update it as its message of connecting with our neighbors and fellow community members is even more important today than it was when I originally wrote it. Our ability to embrace this unprecedented time of change will determine what our futures look like. It’s time we evolve from sitting idly by waiting for “the man in the white hat … riding on the white horse” to save the day – and transport us back to the way things were. “Pursuit of Normal” not a life strategy. What our futures look like lie with us; those we know and those we may serendipitously happen to encounter. It does not lie with some illusion of government or institution created for the benefit of generations long gone. This fact is becoming clearer with each passing day. Now the question is; what lies down the road … for all of us?

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

Our society, fueled by the media, has an obsession with looking at people in the aggregate. Group us all together by a common characteristic; race, gender, sexual proclivities, age – assign a set behaviors to us; and that’s how we’re supposed to think and act. Same situation for a locale, where you live. Some communities are conservative, some are liberal. There’s rules and norms we’re suppose to follow depending on which we live in. Isn’t it a lot more complex though? Are we destined to a fate by the nature of the aggregate, geographic or other? Instead, isn’t your town or community better described by the collection of individual relationships that happen there. Relationships can follow norms, or they can deviate – and when they do, a single interaction may have the potential to alter the entire dynamics of the community, or beyond.

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 President Obama to send new ground troops into 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 well-being of our communities being dependent on individual relationships and the events that stem from them; it’s tantamount we create ways to establish relationships that produce positive dynamics that “rule” our communities. Shouldn’t we care about how the people of our communities interact? Even the most seemingly benign remark and resultant 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 (individually and collectively); 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. The inherent reaction 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.

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The Phenomenon of “Shared Experiences

Congressman Patrick Murphy of Massachusetts made headlines a few 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 community 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. Not only does it benefit them … it benefits all of us.

Empathy can be taken to the next level when one multiplies these “shared experiencesand joins someone in their world for a longer period of time (at least longer than a day). 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.

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Cottonwood cartoon

Cottonwood

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.

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Rebuilding the ‘Middle Ring’ using ‘Shared Experiences’

This concept of sharing experience worlds” seems only 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 benefitof 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’re not likely to connect with otherwise.

Left to their own volition people normally will associate only with others like them (including age) – not taking that chance to step outside their comfort zone. 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 our communities to be inclusive.

How can we create the community infrastructure that will nurture the “shared experiences” we need to realize our empathetic potential? If we truly want to create sustainable inclusive communities, that should be what we ask ourselves. This task is much more difficult today than it was when I originally wrote this piece in 2015. COVID has made “getting together” anything but normal. This is especially the case for me with my medical issues (cancer and compromised immune system). That can’t let me off the hook though. While an online conversation is better than nothing, it’s still not anything like a physical engagement with someone; especially if the engagement results in shared action; and shared action with someone not otherwise interacted with. That’s the holy grail.

So your project for the week is to break free from your comfort zone and find a new “friend” – a friend who is unlike any friend you currently have. When standing in line at your coffee shop (with your mask and fully vaccinated I hope), pull your head out of your phone and Facebook, and give a complement or start a conversation. And if your sitting down to drink your coffee – offer a seat at your table.

It’s not as committed as spending six weeks together in the dirt in a tent … but it’s a start.

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