1. the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.
2. the imaginative ascribing to an object, as a natural object or work of art, feelings or attitudes present in oneself: By means of empathy, a great painting becomes a mirror of the self.
I was in The Dollar Store yesterday when something quite simple, yet unexpected happened; I had a thought-provoking conversation with the young man working the cash. Normally, encounters with cashiers are perfunctory, or even down-right unpleasant, so naturally I wasn’t expecting to get a lesson in empathy.
While I was waiting in line, I had a chance to observe this cashier. He was smiling the whole time he was speaking with customers. He was looking people in the eye and making conversation beyond the cursory “How’re you today?” “Find everything okay?” To me, he seemed to be enjoying himself – which honestly I found quite bizarre; he’s a service worker in a minimum wage job after all. When it came to my turn I realized what was special about him. He wasn’t just pleasant, he was Present. Present and cheerful. When I faced him, he stood ready to engage me in that moment.
As for me, I was prepared to have the brisk back-and-forth we’ve come to expect in these situations and be on my way. I got distracted, however, by my eldest daughter Eleanor, who was whining that she wanted her stuff in a separate bag. I rather apologetically requested that he put the two piles my kids were making on the counter into separate bags, remarking sarcastically, “Heaven forbid her pencils should share a bag with her sister’s!”.
Expecting a roll of the eyes or perhaps an affirmative grunt, I was shocked when he said, “It’s okay, I get it. It matters to her. Even if it seems silly to us, it matters to her.”
Stunned. “Yeah” I think I managed to say.
Then he added, “Kids usually get upset about the stuff that matters; like being hungry or tired or ignored. What do we get upset about? ‘Oh, my phone isn’t fast enough’ That’s not a real problem. Kids know what the real problems are.”
I was so impressed with this comment! I told him, “I usually don’t hear that kind of perspective from someone so young.”
“Yeah” he said, “I’ve got a friend with kids. She’s been teaching me about empathy… respecting a kid’s feelings, even if you don’t get it…trying to see it from their side.”
“It has taken me 5 years of parenting to understand that”, I told him.
“At least you got it,” he said. “So many parents are still like, ‘Stop crying! What’s the matter with you!’”
“You are so right,” I said. “Have a nice day.”
I left the store smiling to myself and wondering about this young man. Was he really learning about empathy for the first time? It seemed like a strange way of putting it, “She’s been teaching me about empathy.” I wish I could know more about what he meant. Maybe there’s a threshold one crosses with maturity where the concept of empathy actually becomes something more visceral. Maybe it’s just that as we get older, we can more consciously choose to practice empathy toward others. I wonder if that’s what he was doing…practicing empathy with his customers, and if so, was that practice making him more engaged and present with them?
He got me thinking last night about how empathy transforms my parenting. How by simply being empathetic toward my children reduces my irritation with them and allows me to be a more responsive person. And yet, it can be so damn hard to switch gears from “Reacting” to “Empathizing.” Perhaps it is difficult at times to be compassionate toward children because as adults we are so far removed from the experiences and feelings of childhood. We have forgotten that the struggles and concerns of a child are real and they matter. This young man reminded me of that.
Like I said at the beginning, something simple and unexpected happened.
“Learning is a result of listening, which in turn leads to even better listening and attentiveness to the other person. In other words, to learn from the child, we must have empathy, and empathy grows as we learn.” – Alice Miller