This word has been stuck in my head the past month and I need to express what has been going on in my life to show the meaning. It started when I was at this leadership institute for 5 days, an immersive experience where I got to meet people that on paper were completely different from me. As a natural instinct, we're destined to associate with people who identify as "like-minded." Imagine that you're in an office space in the city with 100 people that you know very little about and you are going to be very close with them non-stop for the next 5 days. I would say that is a little bit crazy. Why should I sign up for this?
I am going to tell one story about this experience that will provide a bit more insight into this concept of empathy. I was standing in a circle with all 100+ of us. We were told to look down at the floor, and then, on the count of three, lock eyes with someone who is different than you. 1,2,3.....go!
I looked over at someone who was across the room, unsure if we both locked eyes, so it was definitely a little bit awkward. As I stepped forward and began to make deeper eye contact, it became clear that it was a mutual connection. Thank goodness!
Then we were prompted to sit down with this person, just us two, for a 60 minute conversation. This was not a "Hey, how's your day going? It sure is getting quite cold out there!" type of banter. We were prompted to open up and discuss challenging and thoughtful questions. One question I was asked, "If you could have dinner with anyone, who would it be?"
I could have taken the easy route, but I decided to go with....Donald Trump. I would like to have dinner with him. Immediately after saying this I felt uncomfortable. Wait, why did I choose him? Is it because I think he is a super great president? Is it because I think he is an interesting person? Or is it because I hate him and want to let him know over dinner!
At this time, not only was I uncomfortable, but I felt as if the other person was thinking it was the first answer. Because my assumption is that she did not like the president, as the data shows us that most people do not support him in Washington, D.C. And if this must be true, I assume that people find ways to point out what is different about their beliefs. So with all of this uncertainty and too many "what if's", I felt uncomfortable! I mean completely irrational for me to think that, but the reality is that most people would probably respond the same way. We are scared to get exposed.
Naturally, I had to explain myself, of why I would ever say that I wanted to eat dinner with Donald Trump. I said, "I'm not very invested in politics, and I would like to better understand his way of thinking. I want to ask him the why questions. " This might be the unpopular approach to the initial dinner question, but it speaks to something greater.
First, when the precedent is set to find someone different than you, what does that mean? After doing this exercise, I realized that "different" can mean something else for one person than to another, and also that it is good to be uncomfortable. To be frank, the hardest part was locking eyes with someone. The initial sixty seconds where more challenging than the last fifty-nine minutes. I believe that illustrates the fear of jumping into something new, that appears scary. But I believe more so that it's because there is a perceived notion that you will not be able to relate to the other person.
So fast forward to the next part of our conversation and see what changed...
"How about you, if you could have dinner with anyone, who would it be?"
"If that person was living or dead, I'd choose Joseph from the Bible."
Before she even had a chance to elaborate, I said, "Oh wow, I never thought of using someone from the Bible but that's awesome, tell me more?"
She dove into his characteristics, the life he lived, and so on....In this explanation it came to surface that she used to lead choir and that her dad was a pastor.
After 5 minutes, I was already relating to her about our roots in faith. We continued chatting and she explained how she was currently being a mentor to her two younger brothers who were juniors in high school, and were involved in sports. I felt in sync because I was listening and finding similarities and reliving my high school soccer days. I found that we were "like-minded" in the midst of our so called surface level "difference".
I am realizing the importance of removing bias or any kind of label because they do not provide the full picture of one's story. I heard her story which allowed me to understand the meaning of empathy. Taking time to get past the initial obstacle to understand that we are so much more than than we might be labeled.
Remember the initial question, "If you could have dinner with anyone, who would it be?"
"And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, ..."
When we come together at the table, something special happens, we enter into a dialogue with one another. And for scripture tells us that we were made in His likeness, and that, I can see in all of us.
Tyler Brondyk, Storyteller