Lately I have been gifted with some terrific teachers in my life. The cat that used to sneak into our house, who I had found a home for, is back – and has commenced sneaking into our house. She is teaching me boundaries with compassion (instead of compassion with no boundaries). The other prominent teacher for me right now is the young woman next door.
Multiple times a day, my neighbor sits on her patio and smokes. Sometimes tobacco, sometimes other plants. As our patios are connected, when she smokes, without fail, the fumes make their way from her patio into my house. I understand that she does not want to smoke in her house and have the smell inside where she lives, but neither do I. Thankfully I never said an unkind word to her, but I have to admit that I have frequently closed my window with extreme prejudice. My angry indignant mind loves to play its tape. “She is so rude. She is purposefully doing this to me or at least doesn’t care about how her actions affect me. It is unfair that she is keeping me from having the fresh air I am entitled to.” The tape stopped the day I spoke to her.
We were having some work done on our home and like I good neighbor, I wanted to forewarn her of the noise and mess it may cause. I hardly got the words out of my mouth when she apologized for the smoke. She said that she tries to control how much comes our way, but the wind is not always helpful. She apologized for the weekend before. I had thought she was having a party with a few friends. What I learned was her 20-something friend died unexpectedly and she and her friends were chain-smoking to help them through the trauma.
I felt like a heel. Here I spent weeks making my neighbor into the bad guy. I focused only on myself and my suffering – which I made worse by the stories I told myself. Never in all that time did I tried to get to know her. Never did I have a conversation with her to see if we could problem-solve her right to smoke and my right to clean air. Never did I consider what she may be feeling or what was going on in her life.
Many of us have like me temporarily, or fairly constantly, lost the power of empathy. We look at our goals and our needs. We see people as taking from us or denying us. It takes a figurative slap in the face like I received, to awaken us from our self-centered coma. This experience has helped me remember:
We don’t know what someone else is going through: Before we get angry because someone cuts us off in traffic or is curt with us on the phone, it helps to pause and consider that maybe the person is having a bad day or is rushing to take care of an emergency. Instead of focusing on our inconvenience, we should look beyond our self.
There is no absolute right or wrong: Just because we have expectations of how things should be, does not mean that is how they will go or even how they should go. Who are we to judge what is right and wrong?
We are all in this together: No matter how much we try to isolate or be independent, we need one another. Peace, understanding, compassion, and empathy can be found when we stop thinking “me” and start thinking “we.”
If you want more inspiration to embrace empathy, watch this terrific talk by Simon Sinek about the need for more empathy in the workplace.
Now more than ever, at work, in our relationships, and in our government, we need more empathy, compassion and understanding.