How To Develop More Empathy For Strangers

I’m an introvert.  Small talk and cocktail parties are not really my thing.  In fact, for a long time just being in a crowd of people would be mentally and emotionally exhausting.  I would usually want to finish up the conversation and then run into my office or a side room and hide out so I could recharge.  I almost always felt guilty especially as someone who worked in ministry positions at churches or in politics because people have high expectations of leaders and how they spend their time with the crowds.  I wanted to care about so and so’s story about the gout but I just couldn’t spend two hours listening to that over and over from so many people… you think I’m kidding, but this is church life.

The hardest part was when I was in a space where I was writing or thinking or working on something and someone would interrupt.  When I’m in the flow of deep work there’s nothing more frustrating than being distracted.  Coming out of that zen like meditative work flow is jarring to my system.  Many times, unless you’re on fire, my interest level in your crisis is going to be minimal at best.  If you’re on fire, don’t be surprised if I simply hand you a fire extinguisher and let you handle the problem yourself as I get back to my book.

All that being said, one of the things I noticed years ago was that after I went through a deep personal financial crisis (one of many in my life) when I came out of that and was running one of our businesses I had developed incredible sympathy for folks who were struggling financially themselves.  I knew firsthand how painful it was and how debilitating it could feel as a parent and provider for your family.  Sympathy is a pretty normal response for most of us after we’ve gone through a season of pain.  Empathy though, the ability to appreciate someone’s situation even though we don’t have first hand experience with it, is something else entirely.

After one of my own self evaluation periods that I occasionally go through I realized I needed to work on my own ability to be more empathetic.  To appreciate the journey other people are on.  To ‘walk in another man’s shoes’ so to speak.  As someone who could sympathize with your financial hurt it made it much easier for me to sit with people as they told me their stories.  I didn’t find myself as exhausted as before and seemed to actually have more energy because I had an opportunity not necessarily to help but to give them an emotional shoulder to vent their hurts on.  It was life changing.  I realized if I could become more empathetic, not just sympathetic, it didn’t matter if someone was telling me the story of their gout flareup, my own reaction to it would be more life giving instead of life draining.

In order to do this I came up with my own exercise which was to Imagine Everyone I Met Was A Member of My Family.  This sounds silly but it was actually really life changing.  Even if you aren’t particularly close to your family we all love the idea of family and what it means. Seeing the cashier at Starbucks as my cousin, or the old lady on the side of the road as my grandma, or the grumpy mechanic at the shop as my crazy uncle Larry (you get the idea), was like a mind meld.  I found myself looking at strangers completely different.  I don’t have a particularly high ‘feeling’ side (on the MBTI scale) but by looking at people this way I found myself wanting to give hugs, to encourage, to throw an arm around someone’s shoulder and sit and listen to their stories for as long as they wanted.  I mean, this was my aunt working behind the counter and I know how hard she works trying to put food on the table for her family.  She messed up my order and is wasting my time?  That’s okay.  She’s family.  I haven’t seen her in years.  She’s a little crazy but… she’s family.

You get the idea.

Like I said earlier, regardless of how you feel towards your own family I challenge you to try this.  When you’re at the store or walking down the street start looking at people and tell yourself, ‘that’s my mom, that’s my aunt, there’s my grandpa’  I promise it’ll change the way you see the world.  Are there bad people out there?  Yeah.  And those bad people are someone’s son, daughter, brother etc.  When you see strangers as family members it’ll make you more empathetic to the journey each of takes and cause you to have a new appreciation for the struggle of life.  Empathy among strangers is one of the greatest skill sets human beings can develop.  See the world as your family and you’ll begin to realize that one of our biggest challenges as a society is that we simply need more love from one another.

I’m still an introvert.  That hasn’t changed.  But what developing empathy has taught me is how to be an even better listener and to genuinely take an interest in the people around me.  I’m fascinated by stories and struggle and life.  As someone who spends a lot of time reading and writing stories the best skill I can have is empathy for my characters (whether good or bad) and the people around me in my day to day.  This is why so many artists tend to fight for causes that a lot of other people find disturbing.  Empathy teaches you there is no such thing as black and white.  Empathy lives in the gray. Picking sides and an ‘us vs. them’ mentality is not empathy its narrow-mindedness.  Good art forces us to be more empathetic.

Being more empathetic is being a good human being.

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It’s Time To Stop The Self Publishing Harrasment

I’m always amazed at the number of people who still make comments about authors who self publish as not being legit.  Or perhaps its authors themselves who will put their own material out with a secret fantasy of landing a huge book deal.  There are even highly successful authors that will still get mentioned as having self published their first book and then landed a deal, as though they were anointed or something.

To me, this is ridiculous. If for no other reason than simply look at YouTube.  No one watching a YouTube video thinks, ‘Wow, this is a great daily vlog, hopefully one day this guy will get picked up by a TV network so he can have a real career.”  The reason?  We’ve become completely conditioned to the idea of online video being a legitimate form of artistic expression especially as its launched the careers of thousands.  The artist or creator has total control over the outcome.  If its not well done or there are things we don’t like about it we either stop watching or we ignore that part of it because we like the rest of the material.

Whether its fan fiction sites, blogging, or the rise of ebooks self-publishing is here to stay.  Authors should stop feeling guilty for writing and putting out their own stuff.  A poorly designed cover, or bad grammar, are no longer deterrents to finding readers.  What people are interested in is an idea or point of view.  Authors who write and put out their own material should view themselves like YouTubers.

Write as best you can, with the resources you have available, and your audience will come.

You Have Permission To Fail

You have permission to fail. You are allowed to create art no one likes. You are allowed to build a business that goes bankrupt. You are allowed to fall in love and have your heart broken. If you spend your life running from potential failure you’ll never really be alive. Get out there and make a million mistakes. We’re all improvising and figuring this out as we go along so don’t be afraid to make a fool of yourself. Stay away from people who have never tried and failed. They typically go by the name of ‘expert’. They are liars and frauds.