Note: One of my favorite parts of Urban Empathy is the introduction where I discuss super heroes, NYC and nonviolence. In honor of the book now being out more than 10 years, I’ve decided to blog some excerpts from the book. Today is Part Two. Read Part One here.
As human beings connecting with other human beings, the drama of Urban Empathy is on a very personal and even intimate scale–usually between two people or a few people at most. Empathy and compassion transform the size of the City and gives it a human face. In the last story, “The Shadow of Gandhi,” practicing compassion supports me in dialoguing with someone I otherwise would have dismissed and shunned, and even wanted to protect myself from. Taking the risk to dialogue with someone I fear (based on their words and behavior), I unearth a jewel: a rare moment in the “jungle” of the City where two beings meet and find mutual understanding, connection, and learning. In this potentially. charged situation—where racism is at first suspected, but not named–a moment of transformation and healing occurs.
Sometimes, when repulsed by a person, their words or actions, it can be difficult to see them as anything but bad or ugly. It can be hard to even see them as human (have you ever noticed when you’re mad at someone, how ugly they look?). In the opening story, this concept is humorously explored via accidentally extending empathy to a cockroach. For a moment, I am able to imagine that he (or is it she?) must also be scared and wanting safety. For me, this moment of unexpected compassion opens up the possibility for empathy in everyday situations where we also may not think it’s possible –with a demanding, overbearing, unreasonable boss, a cantankerous partner, or a child who’s kicking and screaming. Each of us has those we might recoil from, that might be “cockroaches” in our lives. How do we find it in us to act from a place of understanding?
When we act with compassion, it is an act of love. It also is about maintaining curiosity. If my partner agrees –as she does in “The Shower Curtain Saga,” to open the curtain after showering and I don’t see it happen, I can be curious about it rather than going into a story (such as that she doesn’t care). When I ask to learn more, I gain valuable information; once on the same page, we easily find a solution.
None of the situations in Urban Empathy are on the scale of what Super Heroes take on — no out of control subway cars, toppling skyscrapers or exploding buildings. I do not cling (literally) to a precipice or leap between rooftops. Yet I believe these stories and the practice of empathy and compassion that inspired them also offer daring, drama, and even a kind of magic. The daring and courage come from taking a risk—taking the leap to believe and trust that, if I am vulnerable with others and turn up fully as a human being that I will be met by another human being. Because we have been told so often (starting with Genesis and Cane and Able) that humans are greedy, dishonest, dangerous and untrustworthy(or psychotic or crazy), it can be hard to take this leap. Our rational mind can scream, “Stop! Don’t do it!” The drama comes in that moment of not knowing — when I approach the burly driver of the Mack truck, smoking a cigarette, on a cell phone, running his engine at 5 a.m. in the morning outside my window. Will there be connection — or not? While it doesn’t happen every time (there are moments when I step away, for ease, self-care or healing), the numerous moments where connection and understanding do occur leave me, repeatedly, in awe.
Connecting with my own humanity or the humanity of someone I am afraid of or angry with — or has done something leaving me uncomfortable or hurt — has not come easily for me and can still be challenging. I didn’t learn it at home, at school, or from anywhere else in mainstream culture. What I learned to do (when something is unsatisfactory or wrong) is to blame or punish: another person, group, or myself. Wanting compassion for myself in my effort to live nonviolently, I am reminded of what Gandhi advised: that no one ever completely becomes non-violent. All we can do is to walk closer to that goal. I also remember what the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Han has said: If you think you’re the Buddha, go spend a weekend with your family.
There are several stories in this book where I “miss the mark — where I’m not in integrity with my own values (such as in the first conversation with my mom about anti-Semitism in “Too Close to Home.” I believe these “failed” efforts offer gems of learning and understanding for all of us, me included. It’s not about getting a conversation “right” or attempting to be a saint. It’s about turning up the best we can with authenticity and caring. While the situations differ in Urban Empathy — from conversations with family members to complete strangers on the street, they all invite the possibility of engaging in a similar process of listening deeply to whať’s going on for others and ourselves. All of these stories are verbatim. I recorded them as closely as possible, as soon they occurred, warts and all. I am trusting that my own humanity, with all its failings, is a gift of shared humanity.