After years of empathizing, I have generally found that the feelings come before the story. Someone will communicate disappointment, sadness, fear. I see it and, if I stand as witness, a story will follow. I can generally trust those feelings when they show up. I have also noticed that I cannot always trust the story. Not even if it is my own.
One of my old stories was that whoever is in charge of my life is wrong and misinformed. Over time, I realized that this is a belief I got from my parents, two very hard-working, intelligent people who were under-appreciated and under-educated. They had missed opportunities because of their poverty, limited education, and family demands that came to them very early in life. My dad was the eldest of 13 and my mother was the youngest of three who were orphaned as teens. They were also hurt by rabid capitalism and the ups and downs of the economy. They were both teens in the Great Depression. When I was a child, their after-work discussions and arguments were often about how hard life was and how bad their bosses were.
I harvested lots of phrases, arguments, and points of view from my parents. I was able to apply them to my own work life as a paper boy, grocery sacker, machine operator, time keeper, tannery worker, and dishwasher. There was abundant evidence that my bosses were wrong and stupid. I became a school teacher in a district headed for a teachers’ strike and became a building union representative. Still more fuel for that bon fire.
When I became a psychology intern, however, I realized that my perspective didn’t hold up. In fact, I learned it was not even my own perspective, but my parents’. My supervisors were super smart. They were not wrong. Even the hospital administrators were smart and often correct. The cause of this sudden rise in human intelligence? I got a chance to see these people as my colleagues with a different status from my own. Their status didn’t make them more or less intelligent. Their decisions were based on experience and they were sometimes caught in a tough spot as middle managers. Sometimes we would collaborate to improve systems. Other times they taught me to suck it up. In short, I noticed that I am not powerless, but I had a story that suggested that I am.
So, as we work to build community, employing empathy along the way, it may be useful to attend to the feelings we are called upon to witness. The stories that follow will be instructive, but the content of these stories may not be the most useful substance for decision making. After attentive listening, it might be useful to ask in gentle, sincere tones, with full respect, “What actually happened that triggered these feelings?” We may learn that the issues are current and big. We may also find out that the hurt is old and the new issue is reminiscent of that old hurt. In both cases the incident is real. But in one, the feelings may not be current.