By Megan Norton
Empathy is not sympathy. It’s not agreement with a person’s situation or saying, “I know how you feel.” Empathy is the demonstration and creation of safe space making to provide room for others to be present and for you to engage active listening skills.
The hope that we can serve one another and be present for each other especially during this COVID-19 season are actions we need now more than ever in our homes, communities, states and countries. It’s creating the safe space to ask, “What do you need?” And if that is silence, let it be silence. Don’t ask this question if you’re not prepared to walk “ten thousand steps” in their shoes and allow them to share their needs, emotions, struggles, celebrations and journey — this is empathy.
Before you begin to compare your COVID-19 season story with another person’s or “rate” it in terms of “fun” or “tragic” or enter into a competition of who is “worse off” with all the changes in schedules, work, and routine, maybe broaden your perspective to understand that there are layers of effects in this transition time to each of our lives.
We are all in transition. Be gentle with one another. Be kind. Be hopeful people. And may I expose the “privilege” that how some are griping about toilet paper shortage or that restaurants don’t offer carry-out anymore is not “suffering.”
There are incredible stories of loss that are happening everyday and we need to be aware that this is a health war. Staying home and attending to the needs in your family are the best ways to be combating this pandemic. We are in this together.
During this time, the feeling of hope can feel like it’s in shifting sands. I walked on the Silver Lake sand dunes today, paving the word “hope” in one level spot. It struck me as I was carving out this four-letter word that any preposition you put with it can capture where someone may be with it in this season: looking after hope, beside hope, beyond hope, between hope, dwelling in hope, among hope, walking through hope, inside hope, loving because of hope, around hope-full people, holding onto hope, out of hope, desperate before hope, without hope ...
It sometimes can feel we have access to it and sometimes we feel we’re about ten thousand steps away from it. Walking today ten thousand literal steps to shape this word in shifting sands meant I had to dig in, repeat steps, follow my path again and again. I got lost in it. I even became hopeless at one point in the process thinking what’s the point — do I believe in this word right now? And yet I knew I had to leave the area to see the “hope creation.” I had to walk ten thousand steps and one thousand more to gain perspective of it.
Let me expose my privilege of time today that led me to think about the unsung heroes in our community during this time: the cashiers, mail carriers, postal workers, construction workers, and caretakers. Indeed, the medical workers are on our minds as the “Front Line soldiers” in this health war, but how about we consider the additional “essential” workers around us that continue to make our lives comfortable during this time.
We can engage our empathy skills with them in the stores, at the bank, across the yard, and through the drive-through by first acknowledging them. Greet them and thank them for their service. Acknowledging and affirming them demonstrates you see them and value them. They are essential to keep us winning this health war. Let’s celebrate and encourage them.
I walked in between and around and at the ends of my literal and figurative hope this evening. On shifting sands, no less, that proved to be quite accurate in how my hope feels these days. But what was helpful was stepping away to gain perspective. Stepping away to see my hope. Stepping away to see the sun set on it. Hopeful that the sun will shine on it tomorrow. Knowing that my hope isn’t meant to stay in this form forever; but rather, to be built up, re-shaped, and found in stories of empathy, fierce compassion, and behind-the-scenes heroic acts of kindness. We’re in this together. Expose that.
(Megan Norton wrote this column after walking on the Silver Lake sand dunes on April 1.)