I went for another short, slow, somber run last night. Before I left the house, I banged around the living room, agonizing over which shoes would least aggravate my injuries + whether or not I should pair them with compression sleeves.
Here’s the deal: In addition to the acute pain and stiffness in my legs, I’ve been living with a mystery chronic illness for the past decade. The symptoms I suffer from are rare, idiopathic, and isolating. I do not write about them. I rarely talk about them, because I never get the reaction I’m looking for.
People say ignorant things about things they are ignorant about. I do it; you do it. We’re each bound to the world by our own unique sensory experience. It’s difficult to empathize with others when we can’t even be sure we all see the same color purple (we probably don’t).
While I’m running, I obsess about how trapped and terrified I feel in my own body. I can’t help it. The act of running alone is a perfect conduit for thinking about being alone.
Nevertheless, while I’m running and thinking about being alone, I try to smile at other people. I admittedly don’t often smile at smokers. If I do smile at a smoker, before I inhale their fumes, I always regret it. There’s a limit to even my attempt at empathy.
A smile is an extension of the best part of you. When someone returns your smile, it’s an extension of the best part of them. Such a seemingly simple gesture is a lot to give. It is a lot to receive. We’re all in a lot of pain.
Many people don’t smile back at me. When they don’t, I usually assume it’s because they (for whatever reason) can’t.
Last night, it was Sunday, and uncharacteristically warm for February in New Jersey, so the main strip of town was filled with people walking their pets and strolling in and out of restaurants. There were quite a few smokers savoring each drag.
There’s a length of cobblestone sidewalk beneath the town clock and I’m always extra careful there. Every step is tenuous. Even though I’ve run over this cobblestone thousands of times, I’m always alert to threatening new shifts and protrusions.
This time, I saw a man walking toward me with a cane, feeling the cobblestone for himself, taking his own precaution. On an immediate level, I recognized the fact that he was blind, that it was my responsibility to navigate around him, so I jumped into the street. As I jogged past, I looked into his eyes and smiled.
It took me half a mile to realize the gap in my thinking. I’d smiled at the man to communicate something – that I saw him, and recognized his challenge as greater than mine, and was happy to move out of his way. Except my attempt at a benevolent gesture fell short of acknowledging his experience; it only grossly exposed my ignorance. He couldn’t see my smile, that small measure of social currency I take for granted.
It’s not possible to inhabit another person’s body. You can’t run a mile in someone else’s shoes, and that’s a good thing, because it’s the stretch – the willingness to imagine another’s suffering, even though it’s something you might never experience – that is the true value of empathy.
But it’s important, I think, to consider all of the things you take for granted – the things you say that can’t be heard. The things you do that can’t be seen or felt or, worse, cause (unintended) pain. Those challenges are opportunities to reconsider the way you relate to a world full of other people and discover new ways of doing the same thing every day.