Monday, February 9, 2015

I'm Trying My Best // The Thing About Empathy

I've come to realize that I have a real affinity for old people.

I just Merriam-Webstered "affinity" because I wasn't completely confident in my word choice, and it told me:

af-fin-it-y, noun; a feeling of closeness and understanding that someone has for another person because of their similar qualities, ideas, or interests

So, maybe I didn't choose exactly the right word.  I definitely don't have the same qualities and interests as most people over the age of sixty-five.  I still stay out past ten p.m. sometimes, I don't need vision correction, and I'm hopelessly incompetent when it comes to knitting or crossword puzzles.  I guess a better word would be "appreciation."

I can't pinpoint exactly when it started, but I've started to notice that old people have a lot of good stuff to say.  They have so much wisdom and experience, and I could just soak it up for hours and hours.  I'm lucky to have two sets of grandparents who are healthy and really mentally sharp, and the genius things that come out of their mouths never cease to amaze me.

One grandparent, my mom's dad, has his doctorate in Family Systems.  You don't have to know what that is (I don't) - for our purposes, we just need to know that he's spent a lot of time studying psychology and the way people interact.  After earning his PhD and spending some time working in a mental institution and in the Peace Corps, he spent a lot of his life helping churches solve their conflicts, and now he's retired and does some life coaching and mentoring on the side.  In other words, he's really cool.

He and my grandma came to visit about a month ago, and I got to spend some time picking his very pick-able brain about all the things he knows about people.  I think it's fascinating, and he's more than happy to share, so we usually end up spending a lot of time sitting in the living room, him talking and me nodding and taking mental notes at rapid speed.  Most recently, we discussed (see also: I was lectured on, in the very best way) his career as a mediator in churches.  He was explaining how he handled working with people who just seemed, well, really out there to me, when he said something that's been on my mind ever since.

"You can't ever be mad at people for the way they act - you have to have some empathy.  People do the best they can with what they know." He called it the Empathy Principle.

Isn't that cool?  The more I think about it and the more people I have the chance apply it to, the more I realize how true it is.  I've found it to be a great attitude to have when dealing with people, especially those who I have trouble seeing eye to eye with.  The Empathy Principal says that, yes, sometimes people are going to be incredibly difficult.  It doesn't excuse people who do things that I don't understand, but it tells me that there's always a reason behind those actions.  It tells me to try and try and see things from another person's perspective before I get mad at them - maybe the impatient guy at Starbucks who takes my spot in line has a really important interview coming up or is too preoccupied with what his wife just said to him to even notice that I was standing there.  Don't get me wrong, I still think it's crime to deprive someone of their caffeine fix for even ninety more seconds, but as I'm waiting for him to take his order, I can understand where he's coming from a little.

  My mind it a lot more peaceful when I focus on peoples' entire stories rather than isolated actions.

I love the Empathy Principle because it takes away any false responsibility that I might feel for the way people act towards me.  I don't know about you, but when a friend or family member or even total stranger treats me unkindly, my mind sometimes slips to What did I do?  Sometimes, my actions have something to do with whatever's been done to me, but most of the time it has more to do with a late night or a stressful family situation than anything remotely related to me. (Get over yourself, Allie.  You're not that big of a deal.)  When I consider what the person I'm interacting with is going through, what their background and experiences are, I can lose that heavy burden of worrying about what's wrong with me and start caring about them instead.

When I think about what's driving another person before what their problem is with me, I can love them better.  I find myself offering a  How can I help you? before a defensive What did I do? It's crazy how far that simple change of words goes to better a situation.  How can I help you? gets right at the heart of what the person I'm talking to needs, helping me to understand and assist them all at once.

The Empathy Principle levels the playing field.  When people's actions are simplified way down to "doing the best we can with what we know," it shows that we're all pretty much the same.  We're all trying, our results just look different because we all have different circumstances and personalities and opportunities.  My trying looks different from my brother's trying which looks different from my teacher's trying - when you take away what we know, the people around us and the lessons we've picked up over the years, no one is better or worse than anyone. My grandpa's words, more than anything else, were incredibly humbling to me.  I don't get along with another person not because they're horrible and I'm not, or because I'm horrible and they're not, but because we're working with different experiences.

I think maybe another reason that I like old people is that most of them have some version of the Empathy Principle figured out for themselves.  They've done enough life to understand that, at the very least, it doesn't make sense to respond to others with anything other than other than empathy.  If I can figure that out right now, that would be pretty cool!

Until next time,


P.S. Nicole hosts one of the best link ups at Treasure Tromp.  Thanks, Nicole!

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