I like to hang at the local Starbucks. When I sent a friend a video clip of its environment, with the hustle and bustle and music, they said, “How can you work with so much noise?”.
I told them that I am one of those people that work better with distractions. Some, for example, like to have the TV one while they work. The Starbucks has my attractions: coffee, music and an occasional conversation.
I meet interesting people at the coffees shop. There’s Vinny from New England, for instance. I discuss the baseball standings with him because he’s an avid Boston Red Sox fan. I am a follower of their down and out rival that shares a division with them: the Baltimore Orioles.
Henry is an older man I have not seen for a while. When I do, we discuss his birth country of Finland. His real name is “Heikki”. Henry was born during World War 2, and with the chaos of that conflict, lived in several countries in Europe before landing in the United States. I spent several years in Finland.
I struck up conversations with these men because of the baseball caps they were wearing. Vinny was wearing his Red Sox cap when we met. Henry had on lid that read “Sisu”. It is a colloquial Finnish term loosely translated into English as “guts. I knew he must be related to Finland somehow because no one would wear such a cap unless they dug it out of a bargain bin somewhere.
In my last post I discussed the internal war we are having in America caused by enemies dehumanizing one another. Researcher Brene’ Brown advises that one of the antidotes to this general-level hate is to move in closer and get to know people on the other side as individuals. I believe she is on to something.
A close friend and I were discussing yesterday how we have worked with or met with people from other races, sexual orientations, religious beliefs or political stances and gotten along just fine. We both have even made friends with the folks we have encountered. How did this happen?
“People are hard to hate close up,” says Brown.
The other day I was walking to the Starbucks when an African-American man who appeared homeless (he was pushing a cart) saw my tee with a coffee-related theme on it and said, “Like your shirt.” I told him my sister-in-law gets them for me. Although we didn’t know one another and obviously came from different backgrounds, we had an an instant connection.
Right after him a young, burly looking white fellow with curly black hair and an accompanying beard stopped me and gave me some advice. He was half my age and probably thought this old coot needed it. “Get some water up ahead,” he said. Instead of feeling insulted that he must think I am an old boob, I thanked him. I appreciated his concern. (I did wonder if I should upgrade my wardrobe though. Did he think “I” was homeless due to my raggy attire?)
In any case, the people I run into on the way to and in the Starbucks share things in common and we go out of our way to connect on that basis. Coffee shops are places where I seem to be able to exercise my empathy with folks.
Even today I noticed a couple of minority men in Air Force uniforms come into the store. I knew they were sergeants because they of the stripes on their sleeves. However, one had more of them.
I approached this African American man and asked the difference. He told me that he was a tech sergeant and the other was a master sergeant. It was trivia, but it was nice for this old white guy to connect with this soldier. I respect the military for a lot of reasons. One of them is that I have found the people in our armed services themselves are very respectful toward their fellow human beings.
I recall meeting one of my best friends in recent years at a Starbucks in another town. In fact, it’s where we always hooked up.
Tim is a former triathlete who became disabled after developing some physical issues. We had a lot of things in common. We shared the same first name. (My nickname from him is “Tim 2”.) We liked sports. We had similar personal issues. We both were followers of Jesus Christ.
The inability to walk a mile in another person’s shoes is at the heart of a lot of woes in our society. For instance, one of the reasons sexual predators do what they do is because they lack empathy, A recent Time Magazine’s cover story describes how therapists working with sex offenders are trying to teach these men to understand how their victims felt at the time of the crime and the effect on them later.
While it is debatable as to whether or not sexual offenders can be cured, minimally they need to confront how they dehumanized another person in order to keep them from re-offending. Lisa Anderson, an attorney who represents rape victims, told Time that “it’s hard for me to believe that someone could violently ignore the will of another and then be taught not to cross that line. But if it’s possible to teach them empathy, then that should be mandatory.”
Is it possible to learn empathy in this digital age? The physical and emotional distance that is part of computerized communication makes it difficult.
One offender told Time of how the nature of computerized communication in chat rooms led to his crime:
“It led to a devaluation of whoever was on the other side,” he says. “They weren’t a person. They were a means to an end.
I never actually hurt anyone physically. But I left an emotional holocaust.”
To empathize with others, we have to find what Jesse Jackson called “common ground.” In a speech to the 1988 Democratic National Convention he said:
“Progress will not come through boundless liberalism nor static conservatism, but at the critical mass of mutual survival. It takes two wings to fly. Whether you’re a hawk or a dove, you’re just a bird living in the same environment, in the same world.”
We can empathize with others because we not only share the same planet, but we also were created by the same God.
I will expand on her idea in my next post.