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The Gift of Empathy

posted Jun 23, 2020, 9:32 AM by Colleen Getty   [ updated Jun 23, 2020, 1:36 PM ]
Several years ago my oldest daughter broke her arm speeding down a slide. The word “surgery” was mentioned by doctors. It was the day before Easter and instead of a basket of candy, she went home with a cast. We were grateful she didn’t need surgery. 

We all hoped her arm would be free of the cast in time for her dance recital. Despite having the cast removed in time, she woke up sick the morning of the recital. I remember driving around the block an extra time to compose myself before telling the dance teacher she wouldn't be joining them. 

When we were both feeling down about it, I told my daughter (and myself) to be grateful because she was receiving the gift of empathy. "In the future," I explained, "when someone you know breaks a bone and is in pain or misses out on something they worked hard for, you can offer them genuine empathy." She spent the day throwing up along with her younger sister and I did a lot of laundry. 

Neither were interested in the "gift" they were receiving at the time, but later on I repeated what a gift it will be for someone to come to her sad and broken, to tell her a struggle they are going through, and for her to truthfully be able to say, “I have gone through something similar.”

Recently, I was driving down the highway when I saw a crowd of people on an overpass. Traffic slowed. I saw “Black Lives Matter” signs among the silhouettes of people gathered to demonstrate for equality. Tears began to well up in my eyes and it caught me by surprise. Why was I getting emotional? I wasn’t sad. The feelings swept over me—and, who am I to hold back tears that are peacefully demonstrating. 

I realized they were tears of pride. For the first time in so many years I was proud of my country—of the people in my country. They were gathered up there on that overpass together trying to insist we all realize that each of us is a human being underneath our skin. The humanity of us all is a beautiful commonality to be forced to recall.

I think of Covid-19 and how it has made so many of us afraid to leave our homes, to shop for food, to go out in public, to hug. The virus has caused so many people to fear for their loved ones—especially those with underlying conditions. That’s when I realized the gift we are all being given, if we choose to accept it and keep it in mind going forward: the gift of empathy. 

This gift may be a memory before too long, but perhaps we people—especially we white people—can accept the fear and the uncertainty of an invisible virus like Coronavirus, as a lens through which we are better able to witness the fear and uncertainty racism causes every day for so many in our country and around the world. Could this devastating virus be the closest we ever come to gathering what's needed to gain empathy for people of color while remaining in the skin we were born into? 

How amazing is it that one of the most pivotal movements toward racial justice and against systemic racism is taking place at the exact moment in time when the world is simultaneously being offered an epic-sized gift of empathy. Will we allow ourselves to receive the insight we are being offered? 

This virus, which has brought people of every class and color to their knees, may be the only hope we have of even remotely experiencing the fear our black brothers and sisters feel each time they step beyond the thresholds of their homes their entire lives without the hope or relief of a vaccine. It is a window into the fear a mother has for her son as he grows to be a young man, knowing that the color of his skin is a dangerous, underlying condition that leaves him vulnerable to the destructive disease that is racism.

When times are difficult—when inconvenience, illness, pain or death cause us to feel sorry for ourselves—let us instead by grateful. Be grateful for the gift of empathy because it is only through our struggles that we can begin to genuinely empathize with those among us who suffer.