By Mellicia Marx friend to Simple Intentions
Life is busy. I’m guessing that your to-do list is as long as mine. From home, to work, to finances, time with friends, hobbies — and let us not forget exercise — we have countless tasks that need to be checked off the list. And let’s not even start with the calendar; if you view multiple calendars at one time on your phone, let’s say family and work, that alone has the ingredients for an anxiety attack. So, the mere thought of adding on community service may simply be too much. But, I’m here to tell you that giving back is not only possible, it’s easier than you think.
What’s the secret? Practice random acts of empathy. That’s it.
Years ago, I saw an incredible documentary that explained a theory behind road rage. Because we can’t see the other driver’s facial expressions, we assume the worst. We don’t develop empathy. Compare that to the person who bumps into you on the street. When you exchange a glance or words in the moment, later you barely remember it happened.
Now that so much of our communication takes place online, devoid of the opportunity to observe the reactions of other people, we often forget to practice empathy. And we see that with our kids, too. Online communication means that kids don’t see the hurt expression when another one is the target of online bullying. And we wonder, who taught them to behave this way? Well, we did.
So, while I’m a huge proponent of volunteerism, if you feel you don’t have the time to give back more than you already do, how about committing to a random act of empathy every day as your work for the community? Here’s how:
4 Steps to Practicing Random Acts of Empathy
- Recognize your Knowledge, Skills & Abilities
Start with the obvious ways in which you are different from those around you, and recognize that those differences may be beneficial to others. Perhaps there’s a person in your office who would benefit from coffee with you once a week because you can offer valuable career advice, or because you have developed some helpful habits around balancing work and family responsibilities. Maybe you have a solid handle on saving for retirement — I bet there are all sorts of folks around you that could use some helpful tips on that. When my husband and I had our son, he worked in technology with a group of dads of young boys. What are the chances? This crew shared tips with him regularly that made the first year much easier. One even helped us move our crib from one house to another because our car was too small for it. We would have had to rent a truck during tight times, to solve that problem without this generous fella whom we barely knew. (And, I’m still grateful for the diapers.com tip.)
- Acknowledge your Opportunities
Sometimes, practicing empathy isn’t about mentoring as much as looking outside of yourself and seeing opportunities to help someone else, especially strangers or acquaintances. The other day I was in the middle of my session at the nail salon when I heard a woman behind me asking how much longer she’d be there — she was heading to her engagement photo session and thought she’d be late. She was stressed. I offered to give her my spot and finish after she was done. It added an hour to my stay and threw off my calendar. But really, who hasn’t been there, stuck at an appointment that you are desperate to leave, feeling like no one cares? This is where we move from kindness to empathy. Sure, it was nice of me to do that for her. But being nice doesn’t outweigh meeting my own objectives for the day. Putting myself in her shoes and relating to her stress — THAT is empathy. And when I did that, there was no question what action I would take. Sometimes, it’s just about seizing the opportunity.
- Pay Attention
One thing I really appreciate about Jae’s teaching is the focus on awareness. It’s going to be challenging, if not impossible, to practice empathy if you aren’t already practicing awareness. Yes, we all have things we are sorting out in our own lives. But take a moment to look outside of yourself and attempt to understand what the people around you are experiencing and how you could help. Does someone look lost downtown? How hard is it to not only offer directions, but walk them five minutes to their destination? You’ve got this.
- Remember that Whether or Not You Speak, You’re Making a Statement
We make countless choices every day. When someone cuts us off, will we unleash our anger on them or make another choice? I conducted exit interviews at a giant event offering services to people experiencing homelessness. After the men, women, children and teens received help that included rental assistance, food, help with IDs and much more, I asked each one what was the most valuable part of the event. Every single one of them said, “being treated like a person.” They didn’t mention the services, they spoke about someone looking them in the eye and making conversation. When we walk by someone suffering and don’t even acknowledge that they exist, we’re making a statement. Whether someone is suffering from homelessness or from issues at work, offering compassion means something.
Here’s the thing: every choice we make, every time we decide whether or not to be empathetic, our kids are watching us. They are modeling themselves on our behavior. If we offer empathy to our family and friends, but not our co-workers or the stranger at the store or on the street, we are telling them something, whether we know it or not.
Be intentional. Make choices. Choose empathy. Add these to your to-do list or your calendar, even though I know those are already jam-packed. But don’t just add it to your family calendar — add it to your work calendar and your life calendar. After all, we’re all in it together. And there will be a day when you are stuck at the nail salon or have a new baby or just need a break and you’ll feel especially grateful that someone else around you has this task on her to-do list.