Posts Tagged ‘empathy’

By Mark E. Snith

When I first met Chris at the medical center, I wasn’t sure what was up with him.

Chris sat next to me awaiting blood work. He was in his early 30s, with dreadlocks and crazy-colored basketball ball shoes. A sweatshirt and sagging pants rounded out his urban look.

His first words to me were, “Do you go up and down in your chair for fun?” observing my power wheelchair’s elevating seat that takes me from sitting to standing height.

I gave him my standard answer, that it’s really about increased independence and social inclusion.

“I get that,” he said with enthusiasm. “But, if it were me, I’d be going up and down all day long for fun.”

I wasn’t sure what to make of him. His comment seemed a bit odd but totally sincere. At that moment, though, a nurse came out and embraced Chris with a big hello. I’ve learned that, in medical settings, you can tell a lot about a patient by the way nurses respond to him or her. You sense who’s “family. “

With both of our blood work done, we waited for the results and I observed the way Chris interacted with everyone at the center. Medical centers typically aren’t upbeat affairs. No patient wants to be there and so jovial, happy people like Chris are not the norm. He was as though a door had opened and released all tension in the center as he fluttered about with smiles and greetings for all.

Children are rare at the medical center I attend. It’s not for pediatrics, so children are only there to support a loved one or brought by caregivers who don’t have babysitters. However, there’s a large, commercial aquarium in the waiting area, where children inevitably gather to watch the myriad of fish.

As a little girl stood staring at the fish tank, Chris walked up. He was twice her height, and you could see their reflections in the fish tank as they both stared into the glass, side by side.

“Have you ever tried to count fish in a tank?” Chris asked, pointing at the mixed pool of fish. “Watch…”

Chris began counting the fish one by one, and soon they scattered, to where he could no longer count them.

“You try, “ he said, and she did, the fish scattering again. “See, it’s impossible,” he said and the little girl laughed.

Chris’ girlfriend was with him, and as we waited, he’d jump on the other side of a glass partition and make funny faces. I couldn’t stop watching him and smiling.

Soon, both our names were called for our respective appointments. The center has a giant room with cubicles that administer various care. However, there are four private suites for those with more complex needs or privacy concerns. Based on my situation, cerebral palsy and all, I get a private suite for something as simple as a shot.

As my wife and I entered our private suite, Chris and his girlfriend entered the one next to us. Several nurses followed him in with a cart full of medical supplies like I’d never seen. He told me earlier that he had both multiple sclerosis and cancer – and the suite and the nurses and the cart hit it home to me, with heart-sinking gravity.

One could easily wonder about Chris, how is it that someone facing such profound health conditions and a seemingly unknown future can move through the world with such carefree joy?

In Chris and others, I’ve witnessed the answer: It’s not how much or how little we’re given in life, but how we view it all.

By Mark E. Smith

My wife and I were at church and a gentleman came up to us.

“I know it took your family more than most to get here this morning and I want you to know I appreciate that,” he said.

Based on his genuine demeanor, his words weren’t patronizing but compassionate and empathetic. Between my disability and our youngest daughter’s, it does take a lot for our family to get ready each morning.

What struck me about the gentleman’s kind words was that rather than being oblivious to our challenges or, worse yet, stereotype or judge us as that family with the wheelchairs, he saw us as real people doing our best.

Often, we see strangers who may appear out of the norm. Many of us are quick to make assumptions or judge others. I’ve done it and strangers do it to me. But, we know it’s not right. So, what’s the life-inspiring alternative?

What if like the gentleman at church, we simply extend everyone our sincere belief that most do their best? It changes the whole dynamic, doesn’t it? We go from judging to respecting, from differentiating to embracing. We rightfully apply a sense of humanity to all. As I always say, we never truly know what anyone is going through. Why not extend him or her the benefit of the doubt?

Being a semi-public figure, I have critics, people who, more bluntly, despise me. I recently met one at an event. The individual started out very hostile toward me, but by the end of the conversation the individual, who had a disability, explained that living with a disability is so hard that death would be a better alternative. The individual had expressed tremendous anger at me online, but I then in person understood that the anger wasn’t about me at all, but toward the individual’s own circumstance. The person was simply doing the best to cope, even though it wasn’t the healthiest way.

So frequently, we take strangers’ actions toward us personally and become angry or hurt. But, again, we have the ability to extend empathy and compassion. As one with a disability, I’m often a magnet for odd comments from strangers and I don’t take it personally, but presume that they’re doing their best. My wife and I once had a doctor, born and raised in another culture, ask us a myriad of questions about our family and life. He screamed, Congratulations!, after each answer. We weren’t offended, but recognized that he wasn’t raised with disability awareness, that he was doing his best. He genuinely meant well.

Yes, it’s true that there are people doing really lousy things. But, most people are truly doing their best. They may come from backgrounds and lifestyles different from yours or mine, with behaviors and ideologies we’d never engage in. Yet, there are reasons for why we each are who we are, and it’s vital to extend empathy and compassion to others, just as we wish extended to us.

The fact is, if we wish to see humanity at its best, we must first see the best in humanity.

By Mark E. Smith

Water is wise. When it encounters an obstacle, it doesn’t fight it. It goes around it. Water always finds the absolute path of least resistance. From a trickle to a raging river, water effortlessly finds its destination every time.

We live in a culture where fighting every adversity is our calling card. If your relationship isn’t going well, fight for it. If you’re diagnosed with a health condition, fight it. If you don’t like where you are in life, fight your way out of it. But, does all this fighting work or is there a wiser path?

We’ve all sat in traffic and seen that one driver going out of his or her mind by switching lanes, honking and acting as an agitated mess, all while going… well… nowhere. Fighting traffic only upsets the person fighting the traffic – there’s no impact on the traffic.

Many circumstances in life are like sitting in traffic. Fighting the circumstance gives us no more control or resolution. It merely makes a circumstance harder on us. Why are we fighting that which we can’t control, why are we stalling ourselves against immovable forces instead of pursuing a path of less resistance?

Now, I’m not suggesting to concede all. Of course there are circumstances where we should rise to the occasion. Yet, like water, let us be wiser in knowing when to follow paths of less resistance. I lost a dear friend to multiple sclerosis and among the lessons he taught me through his actions and outlook was that his life was lived each day as it came, not battled.

Not every adversity requires a fight. Some, in fact, are conquered by developing the wisdom to flow effortlessly with the streams of life, where paths of less resistance truly do prove the most successful force.

By Mark E. Smith

Someone asked me if struggling ever ends? After all, it seems like for many of us, no matter how far we get in life, adversity still finds us.

It’s a fair question, especially when we’ve spent decades striving to get ahead in life, yet struggles still arise. Maybe you’ve been there. You seemingly have all in order, then adversity strikes – again. Why is that?

Firstly, life is not purely positive or negative, but an ebb and flow of both. Just as all is better, all will get worse. Just as all is worse, all will get better. The key is to find blessings in life not just when we’re on a winning streak, but also when on a losing streak. The blessings are always there; we just need to see them, even during the bleakest of times. In this way, we then maintain gratitude no matter the phase of our life.

Secondly, struggles are intrinsic to life pursuits. If we are to thrive, we are going to likewise experience adversity. You can’t face challenges in a career without having a career. You can’t feel heartache without being in love. You can’t know how difficult it can be to raise children without having children. You can’t know health adversities without a semblance of health. In these ways, the more we live, the more we will intrinsically know struggle.

I, too, once wondered when the struggles would end? Then I realized that life is a process, not a scorecard.

By Mark E. Smith

Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”

Of course, it’s impossible to look through someone else’s eyes. However, when we’re exceptionally fortunate, others allow us the privilege of knowing their struggles. It’s a gift of trust, one that we should honor with utmost empathy and connection.

Indeed, it’s that connection that’s so unique. For 25 years, as I’ve moved through many paths of adulthood, across a vast geography, I’ve had the humbling privilege of so many sharing their struggles with me. Part of it is that we tend to share our struggles with those who also struggle, and the physicality of my cerebral palsy inherently defines me as having faced struggles, so others intrinsically know I’m in the club, so to speak. Likewise, I hope the other contributing factor as to why so many have shared their struggles with me is due to my expressions of real connections between us.

Now, I wish I could share some examples of the breathtaking, heart-wrenching stories some have shared with me over the years. However, that’s not the way it works. When someone shares his or her most personal stories, you help bear the load, but you certainly don’t violate that confidence. There’s a sacredness to such trust. What I can share with you is the truth I’ve learned in this process….

We never know what someone has been through or is going through. I’ve met individuals from all aspects of life – some of whom you’d never imagine have a care in the world – and the stories shared range from heartbreaking to unfathomable. The cliché is that you can’t judge a book by its cover. As I say, a smile can hide a lot of pain, and a trickle of pain can stem from an ocean.

While we move through our days, we encounter many people. Some are strangers; others are as close to us as colleagues we spend our entire days with. Clothes, bravado, makeup, materialism, humor, status, and so on can create facades that make all of our lives seem like the glossy pages of a magazine – two-dimensional perfection. But there’s a third dimension to many of us, one that includes depth and pain and scars. There’s connection in realizing that. It reminds us that we’re not alone in our struggles and also enables us to treat others with the truest sense of humanity. I can’t judge someone because I don’t know what he or she has been through or is going through. But, I can extend my heart equally to all.

As you move through your days, I hope there are those who you can trust with any struggles you may have. Similarly, I hope that you’re one who others feel safe confiding in. After all, none of us need to be alone in our struggles. Share. Listen. Love.

By Mark E. Smith

Have you ever thought, I shouldn’t feel this way because others have it worse than I do? Most of us have reasoned with ourselves in that way at some point. While it’s empathetic toward others and is a coping mechanism, it has a huge downside: self-invalidation.

The fact is, everyone has struggles. However, trying to compare our adversities to those of others is impossible – because we are us and others are …well …others. Your struggles are as valid as anyone else’s because struggling isn’t based on a definable scale; rather, it’s relative to each of our experiences.

I know what it’s like to live with severe cerebral palsy, and I’m fairly emotionally adept at doing so. I’m struck when others express to me that they are inspired by me because as they face their adversities, they know individuals like me “have it much worse.” I understand the good intentions of such sentiments, but I also don’t want others discounting the totally valid emotions around their individual situations, as they very well could be struggling more than I am relative to our own circumstances. I have no idea what another is dealing with, and I never want anyone diminishing his or hers own adversities based on my visible ones.

All of this ties back into realizing that there’s validity in all adversity, in all struggles, for each individual. Just as we are kind enough to give credence to the struggles of others, we must extend it to ourselves, where we don’t compare and create a scenario of self-invalidation, but one of common experience. Adversity is not a measurement or a competition, and there’s certainly no hierarchy. We each have our struggles and no one can say one is easier to cope with than another. It’s all relative and individual.

Now, I’m not saying to wallow in self-pity – that’s at the other end of the scale and can devastate your life. What I am saying is, we shouldn’t dismiss our struggles because others have struggles. Everyone’s struggles should be embraced – including our own.

Ultimately, the truth of adversity is this: There are no struggles more or less significant than others…. Simply different.

By Mark E. Smith

If there’s one aspect of life that we all share, it’s knowing what it’s like to be judged, criticized, and disliked. Gandhi and Mother Teresa were among the greatest humanitarians in history – and even they continue being judged, criticized, and disliked by some. It’s odd but true: To be human is to know what it’s like to be disliked.

Most of us felt the pain of being disliked at some point during our school years, and that was extremely difficult because it’s a time when, according to psychology, we most want to fit in, with little coping mechanisms to help us when we’re told in some way that we don’t, as with experiencing bullying. However, being judged, criticized, and disliked doesn’t stop in school; it follows us into adulthood. And, how we address it within our adulthood dictates the quality of our lives. Others are going to judge, criticize, and dislike us – even disliking Gandhi and Mother Teresa! – but we have the choice to let it consume us or to rise to the understanding that it is what it is, and how others view us doesn’t define who we are. Which have you been choosing?

A friend of my wife recently posted on Facebook an experience that took my breath away on this subject:

I do what I do, having my family and also my career, because they make me happy and give me purpose, and have given me confidence in who I am. I was reminded of this earlier today when we were out furniture shopping. I don’t want my sons to live in a world where humans can be so cruel to each other.

We went to a large, chain furniture store, and as a male sales person was helping us, two female saleswomen were sitting at a table and immediately started speaking in another language about how fat I was, and how my dress was cute, but what a shame because I was so fat, but at least I made cute babies. I walked by, hearing this, holding my son’s hand. I told my husband to take my son and go look at the kid’s furniture, and I turned around and went passed the two women again, who continued to speak about me in another language, which I fluently speak. After about five minutes, I had had enough. I turned and faced them:

“I hope you realize I understand every word that came out of your mouths, and you should both be ashamed.”

I got back four stunned eyes looking at me and an, “Oh, I’m sorry, Ma’am.”

“Sorry” was a bit too late for this infuriated, pregnant mama, who has dealt with bullies like these all of her life. I told myself, “Leave now before you loose it!” But, my emotions got the best of me, so I turned around one more time and said to my salesman, “I want you to tell the manager what you hear me say now,” and I turned towards the women again:

“You are sad, so very sad, but you don’t break me. I’m going to continue wearing this dress no matter what you think of me and, yes, I do make beautiful babies like the one who I’m currently carrying and the one whose hand I was holding while you were belittling me, while not realizing I fluently speak and understand multiple languages. What you don’t know about me is that I’m happy. I’m a business owner. And, while you may call me fat, I wake up each day with a clear conscience that I’m raising my children to be better humans than you ever will be.”

I walked with my family out of the store.

My point for posting this is simple: Never let anyone steal your sparkle. Look at the life around you, and look within you to rise above it, and most of all, do not let it break you….

The fact is, despite self-confidence, it’s in our evolution to want validation and approval. We’re tribal creatures at heart, and once upon a time, not getting the approval of others meant banishment or death, so a momentary visceral reaction – and I emphasize, momentary – in such a situation as above is totally normal. We’ve all felt that sting and defense mechanism. So, for starters, we rightfully feel angry or hurt when judged, criticized, or disliked, regardless if it’s a stranger or someone close.

However, we no longer live in an evolutionary time of survival based on what others think. In fact, we live in a time where simply who we are – the character we demonstrate – dictates our success. Therefore, it’s to our advantage to focus not on what anyone thinks of us, but how we can purely be the best at who we are and what we do.

Have you ever noticed that the most comfortable, successful people aren’t concerned with what others think? It’s not that they’re arrogant or oblivious or don’t care. They want to be liked just as we all do. Yet, they innately understand that they don’t need to be liked in order to be of value. They know that they are of value because of who they are and what they do – and they don’t allow that to be up for debate by others.

See, there’s a fundamental difference between wanting to be liked versus needing to be liked. We all want to be liked – who doesn’t? However, when we need to be liked, we alter our behavior to fit what we think others want. In that process, we may squelch the truest, most valuable parts of ourselves and, worst yet, when we don’t get approval, we feel crushed. That’s not only a tough, unhealthy way to live, but it limits us toward being the amazing person we are, as-is. If we’re always trying to please others, we can never let our true selves shine.

Indeed, we can spend our lives worrying about what others think of us, but we know that doesn’t work. So, let’s focus on what does work: being the best we can be, and letting the chips fall where they do. We can’t please everyone and not everyone is going to like us. That’s OK. Let them focus on whatever they wish while we focus on flourishing, as-is.

As one with a severe physical disability, I’ve had others try to dictate my life since the moment of my birth, when I was given only hours to live, then when I did live, I was deemed a “complete vegetable.” As my life has progressed, such projections toward me continue daily. I’ve been judged, criticized, mocked, and dismissed in every possible way, no matter due to cerebral palsy or being a public figure. But, what did cease long ago was my giving anyone’s interpretation of me credence. My path in life has been solely dictated by one person: Me. I’ve heard everyone’s opinions toward me, but my life proves the final say, as does each of ours.

Let us not worry about getting others’ approval, but focus on living to our own potential and desires. And, when we encounter people trying to get us to buy into getting their approval through their judgment, criticism, or dislike of us, let’s move past anger toward empathy. The world is a mirror, and such projections as those women in the furniture store are reflections of themselves. For this reason, I try not to get angry or pity those who seek to judge and criticize others, but have empathy for them. Healthy, happy, successful people do not judge and criticize others; rather, those with internal struggles do. I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes – or furniture store! Again, it’s normal to get angry, offended, or stung in the moment when encountering rudeness. But, empathy goes a long way toward the big picture that they’re struggling in ways we’re not.

The best impression that you can make of yourself in the world comes not from trying to impress others or by being concerned with what they think, but by being the truest you.  That’s the type of amazing individual that people ultimately flock to.