Everyday Empathy

empathyAt a conference for financial professionals in Miami recently, I attended a keynote speech by Michael J. Fox. I’m pretty sure he has nothing to do with the world of finance, but sometimes I think they choose speakers at these events to help us forget for a minute that our livelihoods are dependent on the U.S. economy. I was so interested in hearing what he had to say that I arrived early and sat in the front. It was inspiring and depressing, sad and hilarious all at the same time. He has an endearing sense of humor and an inspiring message but it was hard to watch knowing that he is struggling with Parkinson’s disease. Despite his life-threatening illness, he spoke about the amazing opportunities he has been given because of his disease and how important it is to be optimistic.

All of his stories were memorable but I keep coming back to one: After a vacation in Paris, he and his family flew on the Air France Concorde back to New York. For those too young to remember, the Concorde was a supersonic plane that could get you from Paris to New York in 3 hours if you were willing to sell a kidney to pay for the ticket. His wife is afraid of flying and was particularly afraid of the futuristic Concorde. Michael promised her that if this trip was too much, they would never take that type of plane again. One Valium and three hours later, the family made it to New York. The next day Michael was in his office watching television and heard that the next flight to leave Paris after his family took off had crashed, killing 113 people. The Concorde never flew again. In telling this story in his book, Always Looking Up: The Adventures of an Incurable Optimist, he finishes by saying, “Sometimes, when you are alone, minutes pass before you even realize you are crying.”

There is a reason why I have been thinking about this story. In 2001, my parents came to visit my husband and me in New York. We took them on a road trip up the coast and had a wonderful time in Cape Cod. On the way home, we dropped my parents off in Boston as their flight back to Los Angeles was leaving from Logan airport the next morning. My husband’s office was on Park Avenue, but the morning that my parents were traveling, he had a special meeting in the World Trade Center. Exactly one week later, he called me at 8:45 in the morning and said, “Turn on the TV.” We watched the twin towers fall together on the phone, completely stunned by the fact that if the attackers had launched their plan one week earlier, my parents would have been on the plane that crashed into the building and my husband would have been on the 34th floor. I was at work surrounded by others who were also sitting around the TV in stunned silence. Sometimes you don’t have to be alone for several minutes to pass before you realize that you are crying.

As a society, we don’t have trouble empathizing when tragedy hits us on a national scale. Our hearts go out to the people whose houses are washed away by a hurricane, whose businesses are destroyed by an oil spill, or whose families are devastated by a madman with a gun. We are a very caring and generous nation and we rally around those who are suffering. I was only one of many in my office who shed tears when we heard that 27 children and teachers that we had never met had been murdered in their classroom in Connecticut. Why is it that so many have trouble taking that empathy down to a small, everyday scale? Why can’t we empathize with people who don’t share our level of education, our financial status, or dare I say it, our political point of view? Seth Godin is an author who has published 14 best-selling books about societal issues such as the post-industrial revolution, marketing and leadership. On his popular site titled Seth’s Blog he recently posted this quote: “When we extend our heart, our soul and our feelings to another, when we imagine what it must be like to be them, we expose ourselves to risk. The risk of feeling bruised, or of losing our ability to see the world from just one crisp and certain point of view.”

Since I am as guilty as anyone, today I am going to try to take an ounce of the empathy that I feel for the families burying their children in Newtown, and exercise it on something trivial as well, like people who can’t quit smoking or listening to country music. Imagine what our world would be like if we were all willing to empathize, even just a little bit, with people whose habits, preferences and opinions annoy us.

Thoughts?

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