True Empathy

Returning from our long walk a few days ago, Steve and I noticed a woman with a mobile phone walking towards us, apparently oblivious to social distance. We made a wide arc into the street to avoid her, both of us a bit annoyed at her for failing to honor the new choreography of walking. Then, as we neared, she looked toward us and smiled, “Would you like to say hello to a shut-in?” she asked, pointing her phone toward us.

Hearing her words, I passed instantly from annoyance to fondness for this kind soul who was taking a shut-in for a walk. “Of course,” Steve and I answer in unison, stopping and waving toward the phone. “Hello, hello,’ we both voiced. Then I continued, “Hope you’re enjoying your walk.”

For some time, I’d heard remarks about how difficult sheltering-in-place and social distance must be for single people, or those with disabilities that make it difficult for them to get outdoors. And of course, I agreed. But I had never experienced true empathy for somebody stuck in the house, consigned to remain six feet away from the closest person. Now, thanks to this sweet woman and her telephone, I could imagine a person on the other end of her line, gazing at me and smiling as they watched me wave and repeat, “Hello, hello, hello.”

Reflecting on this later, I understood that this sweet experience had been born of the Corona Virus. Shut-ins are shut-ins, deadly virus or not. It isn’t a pandemic that condemns them to remain in their homes; it is a disability or illness that forces them to withdraw from society. The pandemic may be intensifying and expanding the shut-in population and their experience of isolation, but pandemic or not, there will always be shut-ins.

Yet it was the virus that had inspired one shut-in’s friend to invite them along on her walk, and then to include passers-by in the shut-in’s experience. And it was my encounter with this loving relative or friend of the shut-in that offered me a deep experience of empathy.

Most of my friends have been responding positively to sheltering in place. We all adapted quickly and remain grateful for the lives we do have—for our partners, our comfortable homes, finances that provide us some cushion. And I’ve voiced empathy for everybody who is struggling in this situation, either because they live alone and are deprived of human touch, or because they depend on income currently denied to them by the pandemic.

But until now, my concern has been primarily vocal. True empathy asks that we put ourselves in another person’s place. That we feel with them, as well as for them. And the truth is, despite frequently talking about empathy, I don’t know how often I genuinely experience it.

But the other day, as I called out, “Hello, hello, hello” to the shut-in, I was able to feel the very real presence of a person watching me through the phone. And once I was able to sense that presence, I felt a connection to whoever was receiving my hello’s. As limited as I was at that moment—standing at least six feet away from everybody but Steve, remaining in my own house 95% of the time for days on end, not hugging and kissing my grandchildren—that person I was greeting through the phone was much more confined. And perhaps for much longer than the duration of the pandemic.

This all became real for me, thanks to the shut-in’s caring relative or friend. And thanks to the Corona Virus, which offered me a rare experience of true empathy.

Through a Fence


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