Empathy: It's a Win-Win

Empathy: It's a Win-Win

At a family holiday dinner last week, it finally dawned on me that certain people I consider smart and beautiful consider themselves stupid and hideous.

Granted, I spent most of my life considering myself occasionally stupid and more or less hideous, but no one has ever considered me beautiful, so that's different. Well, almost no one. But those few who did were clearly out of their minds.

It wasn't my family's holiday event. The family in question was a loved one's family, with whom I have spent countless holidays over many years. Not that I always wanted to. It's a family riven with social and financial debts, abandonments, betrayals and bitter resentments, yet it's also a family fixedly conscious of "blood" vs. "non-blood": We who lack their precious DNA are boring, introverted, football-hating, non-dart-playing aliens.

Many of those with the DNA are quite attractive: long legs, perfect teeth, the type you'd notice in a crowd. This, too, has always separated us: me, striving for invisibility in huge, colorless hobo clothes and them, with costly haircuts and vivid, hip-hugging sheaths. After time spent with them, I often tell my loved one that I'd lost my soul.

But somehow, this time, I sensed insecurity amongst my fellow guests. Fragility. Yearnings to disappear and re-manifest anywhere but here. Ms. Pretty has been dumped too many times. Mr. Popular roasts in his regrets. Somehow, I knew.

Why? Was it because I played, that day, with a four-year-old child who, too young to judge, was clearly, wildly grateful for this grownup playing catch-the-ball-of-string with him? Were his blue eyes the open windows onto what we learn, while growing up, to hide? Did the difference between his eyes and ours reveal, like swirls of Delphic smoke, subliminal secrets and sufferings unshared? Even among the pretty ones? The popular insiders?

Yes. Somewhere back there, maybe even today; they've all been hurt. Something, someone, sometime made each one feel ugly, stupid or otherwise inferior.

And this epiphany, I realized afterwards, was empathy.

For those of us who struggle with low self-esteem, empathy is a complex, priceless prize.

One need not be clairvoyant to detect the hidden miseries of others, but it helps. For the rest of us, attaining empathy is a virtue, a learnable skill that gives us one more aspect of ourselves to accept and respect. Feeling our hearts open to others makes us feel less worthless and less useless. We have much to offer—helping hands, kind words, warm smiles, true praise, forgiveness, even silent moments of shared understanding, even if they never know we're doing this. But better if they do: for them, for us.

Presume and assume nothing about those you envy and resent.

Attaining empathy for others also makes us realize that they're just as miserable sometimes as we are, if not even more. Hey, I'm not the worst-off loser in this room! This should not necessarily come across as good news, and such awareness is tricky territory, as comparisons can be toxic for people with low self-esteem. So try to see the sufferings of others not in terms of more than/lesser than but as evidence of our shared humanity. We're all on this path together, like it or not, like each other or not. And if Mr. or Ms. Pretty and Popular has ever felt ugly, stupid and/or otherwise inferior, yet he or she seems smart and beautiful to me, then my self-loathing might be just as remote from reality as theirs.

That's worth considering.

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