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Tag Archives: Empathy
I was watching ‘Eat, Pray, Love’. I know it’s the kind of story that a lot of us sophisticated types turn up our noses at and say “First World problems”. It’s also a story that made me hungry. How wonderful that the first raw mangoes of summer are here and I had one to accompany my sambar rice!
What struck me is the absolute absence of kindness, the hardness of our reactions. How can any one of us possibly measure what pain means to another? Who can truly determine which problems are bigger than others?
A successful white woman in an unhappy marriage versus an orphaned brown child in a war-ravaged country. Yes, I know it seems like there’s an obvious answer to whose problems are worse. Is there? Testicular cancer versus breast cancer. Arthritis versus colic pain. Diabetes versus malnourishment. An abusive partner versus a beloved partner who dies young. Our own problems are always the biggest to us.
I am learning a lesson of empathy.
If I were the chief minister of a state, I might have to make a decision between using my limited funds to either build better transportation in the cities or send relief to drought-striken villages. I can imagine I would have to weigh one problem against another and decide which one merited more time and money. But empathy is not a finite resource. It grows the more you practise it.
I know the real reason we don’t want to be kind. It’s not because we have so little of it to give. It’s because being kind means giving up the chance to blame the other person and play victim.
I thought about my ex. There is so much pain in this memory. But then, there is also sweetness when I let myself acknowledge that. Our relationship began with kindness. At some point of time, we forgot that and we became people who competed with each other. Kindness was lost in our mutual me-firsts and love went down the drain. We haven’t changed. All the things about him that touched me are still true. It is also true that he was cruel and cold and it was unfair. These two ways of making me feel, can exist together in the same person and the same world. Acknowledging this, is my act of being empathetic to myself. How often do we do this for ourselves? I know we don’t. We scream our hurt and we disguise our love. Or the other way round. But we rarely acknowledge and honour either one. Well, I’m doing that now.
I won’t take the self-help angle of give empathy in order to receive empathy. Karma is not a business transaction. This is about how lightly you tread, how smoothly you move through life. I know a lot of people will not be kind back. Many laugh. And a lot of people in the kind of hardbitten, cynical city life I live, may even try to hurt me.
But I think I’ve stumbled onto something here. I’ve survived deaths of family, friends and colleagues. I’ve survived abuse and rape. I’ve survived politicking and three recessions. These are not experiences I treasure so why would I want to put them up on a pedestal and determine my life by them? There is a lightness in not knowing, not remembering, not worrying. And I would rather look forward to a life that’s a feast, a carnival, a haven, not one that’s a battlefield. Empathy makes all of the first possible, cynicism makes the last.
Exactly a month ago I wrote about the desperation of feeling nothing. I was sinking into the quicksand of what my life was then. A month before that I sliced my deepest emotions with a scalpel of resignation. This past month, I’ve cried a lot, broken out in acne, fallen sick five of these weeks and had a baffling period. I have lost two close friendships. A goodbye I’ve been ignoring and dreading is here. I have also met someone I like. I’ve been taking a lot of walks. I’ve been to the sea more often than I have in two years. And look at how much I’ve written in this time. Something is shifting, something is giving. Something definitely is happening.
And from what I thought was ennui, something new is coming. Maybe tomorrow I will have pizza.
I took the first step today. I asked for help.
I’ve had a fracture and a ligament injury within a year. I’ve had a recurring cough for over 2 months. I have probably fallen asleep before 3 a.m. some 4 times this year. And I don’t remember the last time I woke up feeling refreshed and excited about the upcoming day. But I vaguely remember that once upon a time, I used to.
I went to an Ayurvedic clinic that worked wonders with my health problems a few years ago. It took about an hour to capture vital information about me. It was the first real conversation I’ve had in many, many years about myself. That is odd, isn’t it? I have one of the longest running personal blogs in the country. For ten years, I’ve talked about my feelings, my relationships, my dreams, my goals, my observations, my angst.
But in telling her why I stay up late at night, why I sleep fretfully, why the frown lines on my forehead are deeper than the smile lines on my cheeks, I found myself talking about another me. I found myself realising, I’m not happy.
Well, I know that already. After all, I’m me. But I feel like there has never been any space to say this. Here are the things that I’m scared will come in response:
Why? You have such an awesome life!
You are so lucky. You should be grateful!
Do you know how many starving people there are in the world?
At least you didn’t have to go through a divorce/miscarriage.
Nobody forced you to quit your job. No one asked you to write for a living.
You are so angsty. You complain too much. You whine too much.
You know the odd thing? I’ve rarely said ‘I’m not happy’ and yet I carry that sentence as well as all these above ones that weren’t given a chance to be said, inside my mind. And the weight of them is crushing me.
I don’t even know why I’m unhappy. Not yet, anyway. Though, I can think about it and hazard a guess.
I’m still so tired from the effort of rising from a relationship gone sour, a failed engagement. I’m still hurting from the judgement. I’m scarred by the things that went wrong.
I’m suffocating under the pressure of labels like ‘feminist’, ‘strong woman’, ‘role model’, ‘committed’ and ‘responsible’. A label looks harmless — light, papery and fluttering in the wind. The ink scrawls on it seem deceptively ordinary. But they stick to the skin and to the identity and the force of peeling them away, takes away a part of yourself. It does.
And I am tired of cruelty. Wanton, random cruelty. Unwarranted spite. Needless meanness. Unjust ‘but you promised you’d never hurt me’ heartbreak. So cruel, so much.
I don’t want to go to war with the world. This is not about how badly the world has treated me. This is about my losing my way, forgetting the only things that really matter, that make any of the other stuff worth doing.
This is about remembering to live. This is about remembering to choose living over suffering. It is a choice and this is about remembering that.
This is about remembering fun. What it looks, tastes, smells, feels like. It’s remembering what it feels like to have your eyes light up, what that feels like from inside you — the internal wiring that makes everything come on and send the charge to your eyes that the world can see.
This is about being okay. Shouting that you’re more than okay, is not being okay. It’s just being.
This song came up minutes before I walked into the clinic.
I’m not a teenager under relentless pressure to conform to someone else’s ideals. And yet, concentrated H2SO4 ne pura jeevan jala daala. I did that to myself, to appease the stern, cruel, goal-oriented, never satiated maniac in my own head.
The specialist said something that cheered me and warmed me from within. He said my disposition was one that instantly zooms in on the positive in situations and people, and sometimes forgets about the negative. And he told me that it had made me able to rise above a bad relationship more easily than some others. He was telling me one simple thing that I’d stopped telling myself for so long that I forgot it was true. He was saying,
“Ramya, you’re okay.”
I actually wrote this post on 11 Sep 2014. But true to the reality of this post, I either didn’t have the time to or I didn’t feel I was ready to publish it (perfectionist me). Today, six weeks later, I want to report that I’m feeling much better. The cough is gone. And the doctor says I’m healing. Accepting that all is well, is some way off though.
People sometimes come across as pushy to other people. Other adjectives that get used, depending on intensity, are overbearing, forceful, dominating, aggressive, bullying and spoilt. Impressions get formed in a number of different ways. For now, let’s look at the impression that gets formed in conversations.
A conversation consists of two (or more, but at a point of time, usually two) people. There are ideas to be shared, agreed upon or not and then moving on to other things. Conversations are negotiations of a manner. Negotiations need not all be confrontational or aggressive. We talk about negotiating paths through traffic and crowded spaces, after all. It’s about moving forward, sometimes stepping back, turning, making detours where necessary and going through in some cases. The purpose of a negotiation is to the find a way for everyone in the situation, to get to where they want to be. When do conversations run into dead-ends and result in one person being seen as pushy? I’ll leave that question hanging.
I have heard some people carry such an impression about the Landmark community (its employees, leaders, volunteers as well as its graduates). In the past, some people who have attended guest sessions have come away put off by the aggressive pressure to sign up for a program. Of note, I haven’t heard any of these people actually disagree with the value of the program or its ideas. But the perceived pushiness of the people they’ve spoken to, has put them off, in some cases permanently. I know these have caused strains in relationships and a halo effect on anybody who says they are Landmark graduates. And I’ve had to sometimes say,
“Just because you don’t like the salesman’s face, don’t assume he’s selling a bad product.”
In recent times though, Landmark has moved to a different way of doing things. As a company, in its programs, a key distinction is being made on the kind of conversations that turn people off, rather than forward everyone concerned. At one of my seminar events, I watched a guest have a conversation with my seminar leader, Hari Kotian. She was polite, articulate and seemed a little intimidated by the proceedings. But she went on to explain where she came from, very clearly. This is what I heard (paraphrased from memory):
“I consider myself a spiritual person. I want to better myself and I look for programs that help me work on this. I believe if I make myself better, it will benefit the world. You spoke very well. I thought you were very engaging and powerful. I also think that this program involves setting goals external to oneself and how to achieve them. It is achievement, focus and target based. So I think it is different from what I want to do, where I would like to be.”
I thought this was an abstract as well as personal thought, difficult to articulate to a stranger; even harder for someone intimidated by the situation. She needn’t have even tried, since a guest session cannot actually compel anybody to spend their money registering for a program. She was under no duress to explain her actions to anybody. Yet, she felt inclined and able to do this.
I was also watching Hari during this conversation and he exuded a sense of empathy, of complete openness and even warmth. I’ve known Hari for several years before he became my seminar leader so I know that he brings this wonderful thing to a conversation. You get the sense that he really, really gets you. Talking to him feels like you’re talking to a friend, to a trusted family member even. There is intelligence and comprehension but also a wonderful sense of empathy that emanates from him, which makes it possible for a person to come out with whatever they are thinking, regardless of how it will be received.
As the leader of the seminar, Hari would have his goals to meet, in terms of registrations. But his commitment is to deliver a program that impacts and forwards people’s lives, not just fill up the numbers on a sales quota. I am also not saying that these two goals must be mutually exclusive. Being a successful seminar leader involves delivering good programs sustainably (to an adequate number of people). In the conversation with that lady, Hari brought the kind of open empathy that was untainted by other considerations. The conversation ended with the lady not registering then but keeping an open mind to thinking about whether it might align with her objective, rather than oppose them. I’d say Hari left her with a sense of being able to make a case for or against the program, for herself. Decisions and commitments that we make for ourselves are far stronger than ones that we are pressured into.
I find this a solid case of leading by example. It was a conversation between two people wanting seemingly disparate things. But because Hari showed her the willingness to look into her world and understand her context, she felt willing to do the same with him. It ended with both people moving forward in their respective ways, with no negative baggage and with possibly some value added because this interaction happened.
This minor incident has had a profound impact on me. Empathy is an undervalued thing today. It is not seen as a ‘must have’ form of behaviour, even less as a powerful way of being. But having been witness to the above makes me think,
In my every interaction with the world, can I truly say that I have added value? To my own life and to the surroundings and the people in it?
This is a bit of a holistic thing rather than the competitive belief that epouses the ‘me first/no one else’ policy. But even from that extremely result-oriented point of view, there is a strategic gain to the holistic approach. What matters a minor ‘win’ when a valuable no-win interaction can lead to a stronger association and hence longer-running and stronger wins?
At a personal level, I can choose to push someone into a situation, risking resentment, opposition and non-cooperation, all things that become roadblocks. Or I can stand at every minute for a shared space, a context of empathy, a reference that allows for the validity of your point of view and mine. It probably takes longer and may be harder, given our me-first conditioning. But it seems to be the richer alternative.
And finally, here’s how it plays out within my own life. Yesterday I attended a small literary event. None of the people who usually drive it, were able to be there, so I’d promised to do it as one of its long-running, active members. Possibly because of festival season (or some other undetermined cause) fewer people RSVP’ed. We actually had to take a call on whether to call it off, keeping in mind my restricted mobility on account of the fracture too. Then there were last minute cancellations, including one from from a friend I had invited. He cancelled an hour and half prior to the event, after an urgent client request brought workload in. I was tempted to pitch a fit, I really was.
But instead, I chose to stay in this learning. I remembered that he had been up till 3 a.m. the previous day, preparing a written piece for the event – a surefire indication of his wanting to be there. I tried working with him to see if it was still possible for him to attend by moving around other commitments. It turned out he had already tried doing that and it still wasn’t possible. So I took a deep breath and wished him luck on his project and completed the conversation.
If I hadn’t done that, I would probably have spent my auto ride there fretting and starting the event in a bad mood. Instead, it occurred to me to ask people on my networks if they’d like to attend. Of the people who showed interest, three turned up for the event, even on that short notice. The actual event still had a small turnout but was cosy and intimate. And the community (which conducts these events regularly) has 7 new members as of this morning. I had a great day. I think that’s a win!
The quality of empathy is definitely something I’m standing for, now.
Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.
Ever wondered what its like to jump off the edge of a cliff and then discover there’s no gravity? Ask me…I’m discovering it right this instant.
Yesterday I went for a walk on the beach. The sky looks darker near the sea and the waves melt into it so you don’t see a horizon…its like the sky itself is coming at you in gentle, swishing moves. I watched the half moon for so long, that the walkers started to stare at me. I couldn’t help it…the stars were twinkling and the silver moon glowing a brilliant ice….it was like the sky was smiling back at me.
I saw a sand castle. Someone (adult or child?)had laboriously loaded sand into buckets, shaped and smoothed the sides and painstakingly picked out towers and dug a moat around for safety. I saw the mind of someone who wasn’t there.
A few feet away, wet marigold garlands were lying in the sand. Somewhere, ashes that used to be someone, were drifting to the bottom of the ocean. And somewhere else, someone was missing somebody, someone was counting money and someone was lying wide-awake. I heard the tears of eyes that I couldn’t see.
Across the universe, children, adults, animals, stones, stars and trees are sending messages out. I’m picking them up, I’m tuned in…I’m right here.