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Empathy in New York

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This afternoon I headed to Union Square in Manhattan, and found a bustling urban park teeming with life.  The park contains green spaces as well as a paved plaza.  I walked all through it, marveling at the sheer number of people, before choosing a spot right next to the subway entrance.

To my immediate left, several outdoor chess matches unfolded.  Right in front of me stood a man with a booth representing “the 99%,” who blew a whistle in a rhythmic way reminiscent of a protest chant, about once per hour.  Just slightly beyond him, a quartet of hare krishnas chanted and sang.  And all throughout, people of all ages, colors, and languages walked and talked.

I set up my sign.  Within about 30 seconds, I heard a young woman’s voice saying, “Free empathy?”  I looked up and met her eyes as she continued, “If I had time, I would sit down and have a heart-to-heart with you right now!”  Alas, she did not have time.  She walked on.

After that, I found myself talking to a number of people from Eastern Europe.  The first pair were two young men from Kosovo.  They were curious about what I was doing, and seemed inclined to chat.  One seemed to fancy himself a sort of joker/philosopher, and kept asking me questions like, “If there is so much more water than earth on this planet, why do we call the planet Earth?”  His friend described arriving in the United States a year ago, speaking almost no English.  He said he loved New York, has a job now, and is happy to have made the move.

After a few minutes, we were joined by a cheerful young man from the Ukraine, who was happy to supply his own definition of “empathy” when the other two asked.  His definition was different from mine; he focused on intuitive understanding of another’s emotional state, often from a distance or with no verbal exchange.  He said that he was very empathic himself, and enjoyed talking with people whom he sensed were troubled, since he found he could often help them to feel better.  He also said that anyone can hone this innate ability, and it helps to release everything we think we care about.  He himself had been thrust into homelessness and destitution a few years ago, and found it very scary at the time, but later appreciated it because through “losing everything” he was able to gain this powerful ability.  His material circumstances had since become more comfortable, I gathered; but he retained the ability, and recommended the experience of “releasing everything.”

After these three left, a man who had been sitting nearby turned to ask me about what I was doing.  He was from Italy, he said (and possibly another place in Europe, too – he spoke quietly and with an accent, so I had a hard time hearing everything he shared.)  He, too, wondered what empathy was, so I described it as “listening with caring.”  He told his story of coming to this country, and encouraged me to move to New York, saying that it was great and that he could help me find a job.  (He also asked me for my phone number, which I politely declined.)  I told him I was enjoying my visit, but that I love Portland and plan to continue living there.

Shortly after he and I stopped talking, a self-described “geezer” from Hungary arrived, taken by my sign.  He told a touching story about his father’s having been a political prisoner for ten years.  During his incarceration, the father managed to make small wooden blocks with letters carved into them, and smuggled them out of the prison to his young son (the man talking to me) who was able to use them to teach himself to read and write. Wow.

After he left, another young man – American, apparently born in this country – approached and asked what empathy was.  I told him, as best I could, and he seemed to like the idea, although he didn’t have much more to share.  He moved on.

Then another young man came up, and asked me to differentiate between empathy and sympathy.  I told him my understanding (which is based on Marshall Rosenberg’s distinction) and he seemed to agree.  We had a rather long talk, about a variety of topics including the changing culture of business – especially the financial sector – in America today.  From his insider’s perspective in that industry, he could see that the old norm of high-pressure sales was being replaced by a relationship-building, trust-based model.  I enjoyed hearing this.

While we were talking, I caught sight of a young man walking through the square holding up a “free hugs” sign.  I smiled as he came near us, and jumped up to show him my sign.  We hugged, and got a few pictures together.

As he left, the man I had been talking to expressed suspicion about the “free hugs” guy’s motives, surmising that it could simply be a tactic to get women to hug him.  I smiled at what I imagined as a more “New Yorker” reaction to it than the “Portlander” reactions I had seen from many of my friends back home, most of whom love the “free hugs” idea, and some of whom have carried such signs themselves.  Then, I wondered if perhaps this New Yorker was correct, about some men who carry these signs.  I wondered if I, and my left-coast friends, might be blinded by idealism and naivete at times.  Probably so, actually.  But, I’m pretty sure I’d rather err on the side of trust than suspicion, most of the time.  A lot more magic can happen that way, I find.  I also tend to find that people live up to my expectations, be they positive or negative.  I certainly didn’t lose anything by hugging this guy today; I think we both gained something.

After that, it was getting cold and starting to rain, so after this longer-than-usual session, I packed it up and headed to check out a vegan restaurant nearby.

Heavy rain is forecast for tomorrow, so I believe this will be my only empathy session in New York.  I had been a little nervous that people here might be more stand-offish, or even sarcastic or contemptuous of me and my sign, given the stereotypes I had heard about New Yorkers (mostly, I should mention, from ex-New Yorkers.)  But I found myself once again reassured that we are all human, and people enjoy connecting with each other.

Next stop: our nation’s capital!

A new perspective

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Day Three out on the street.  In this case, it was Harvard Square, in the early evening.  I had walked to Harvard from MIT, taking in the various sights along the way in the beautiful sunshine.  As I approached the square, I saw a weathered, middle-aged man holding a cardboard sign that read, “Seeking human kindness.”  Although of course I understood that he was specifically seeking donations of spare change and bills, I enjoyed the wording of the sign, and I briefly considered pulling out mine a little early, simply to show it to him so we could exchange smiles about the synchronicity.

Instead, I found a spot to sit right at the entrance/exit of the Harvard subway stop, and took out the sign to face the throngs exiting the station. It was pretty busy at rush hour, and no one was stopping at first.  Most didn’t even look at me or my sign.  They all seemed in a hurry to get wherever they were going.  I wondered if I should try re-positioning myself somehow.

Then the man with the sign approached me.  I smiled; but he seemed wary.  He asked if I had a psychology degree.  With a wry smile, I admitted that I did.  Then the conversation took a turn I hadn’t expected.

He did not like what I was doing.  He urged me to stop doing it.  Multiple times.

His concern was that someone mentally unstable might come and talk with me, and I might give them advice that would make them feel worse, and that might do serious damage to them, even to the point that they might harm or kill themselves.

I told him that I don’t offer advice, I just listen.  This did not change his opinion at all.  He said that most people would want advice (which has not been my experience), and I might end up giving some in spite of myself.  And even if I didn’t, I might make a seemingly innocuous, well-intentioned remark, but someone with severe psychiatric or emotional problems might take it “the wrong way,” or give it too much credence, and might make poor, self-harmful decisions as a result. He said that he himself had been suicidal at times, and also that he had a friend who had been to a well-meaning therapist, who said something seemingly innocuous and the friend took it the wrong way and killed himself.  He said many “bad therapists” do those sorts of things.  Would I want that on my conscience?  (He didn’t mention anything about legal liability, but I sensed that might have been part of his concern too.)

Well, no, I wouldn’t.  What he was saying did give me pause.  But I remained connected to my heart, and to the hope and trust and love and faith that resides there.  I could see how his concerns were coming from a place of fear.  Possibly very “justified” fear, given his experiences… but still fear.  I believe that the kind of decision-making that most benefits ourselves, others, and the greater good comes from love, trust, and faith rather than fear.  I mentally began mapping the exponential social consequences of our differing approaches: everyone choosing not to engage with troubled strangers in fear of harming them, vs. the amount of help and connection that could be built by people taking the risk to open their hearts and offer support to others.  I thought of all the smiles and “thank yous” I had received in my time sitting with my sign in various locations, and all the support people have shown me in taking this tour.  To me, the greater good clearly comes from attempting to help, in good faith.

I conversed with the man for five or ten minutes – making an extra effort to listen and reflect what he was hearing more than interjecting my own perspectives, though I did do some of that – and we stared deeply into each other’s eyes on several occasions, each (I believe) hoping the other heard and understood our points.  Neither of us changed our positions.  When it seemed to me that he had said all he wanted to say to me, I thanked him for sharing his perspective, and told him I respected what he had shared.  I meant it.  I’m not sure if he believed me, however, because I also told him that I was choosing to continue.  He said something like, “It’s your life.  I just hope you don’t hurt anyone.”  I sat down again, about 15 feet away from him.  He was now facing outward from the station with his sign and cup (which passers-by were adding to, even during our discussion), so we were effectively facing each other.  A little awkward; but it felt right to me to stay at that location.

I pondered what he had said.  I felt deeply sad to think that his life had been so traumatic (he made some allusions to things that had happened to him, “that you probably couldn’t handle hearing”) that even someone making a simple offer to listen struck him as a dangerous, high-stakes proposition.  I felt sad to think that the power of empathy was not apparent to him.  At one point in our conversation, I had mentioned that what I have personally liked best about receiving therapy myself is when the therapist just listens, with support and respect for my own process, and that that is what I enjoy offering to others.  He replied that if I had been to therapy myself, I definitely should not be doing something so dangerous as listening to others, because “you’re just as screwed up as they are!” Wow.  Not my perspective at all.  (He did follow up by volunteering that no one can solve another’s problems for them; we all have the answers inside ourselves.  I wholeheartedly agreed, and said that was part of why I love to do this, to help others uncover their own answers.)

As I sat there after our talk, within about a minute a young woman approached me and exclaimed how happy she was to see me there.  She took my photo, and when I handed her a flier explaining my tour, she shared that she runs a blog about mental illness, and that she thinks so much mental illness could be prevented or helped by more human interaction, listening, and empathy, so she was just thrilled that I was sitting there offering it.

What a range of perspectives.  This is an emotionally charged topic.

For the remainder of my time in that spot – about half an hour – I didn’t get any more “takers.”  I think perhaps that location was a bit too fast-paced for what I was offering.  But I did get several other smiles, waves, photos… those who saw me all seemed happy I was there, except for that one man.  As I stood up to leave, I walked over and thanked him again for sharing his truth and concerns with me.  He clearly still wasn’t happy that I was doing it.

I’m glad I at least took the time to listen to him.  And I certainly wish him the best on his path.

At the suggestion of my friend Dennis, who had stopped by to say hello toward the end, I then went to another public square about a block away.  It was quieter, especially since it was 7:00 in the evening by then.  Not many people walked by, but I did meet a man in his early 20s, wearing a zebra outfit and scooting around in his friend’s wheelchair.  We had an uplifting chat about how he likes to travel around the country, talking to strangers and urging people to live from love rather than fear.  Quite a poignant contrast.

Turns out he’s friends with the other man, too.

Life is very complex.  And this empathy tour is pretty interesting so far.

A different experience

IMG_1566Wow.  Different experience yesterday.

I went to the steps of the huge downtown public library, in Copley Square.  The library sits right across the street from the Boston Marathon bombing memorial.  I always enjoyed giving empathy on the steps of the downtown Portland public library; and right near a memorial for a very emotionally charged event seemed like the perfect place to sit.

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I arrived around 3:00 in the afternoon.  Almost as soon as I sat down, a woman came up, smiling, and asked to photograph me.  I agreed, and asked her to also take one with my camera (pictured above).

After that, though, I got almost no response for about 20 to 30 minutes.  Occasional smiles or photos, but mostly a whole lot of nothing.  I wondered whether I needed to choose a new location.

And then.

A man in his early 60s, casually but neatly dressed, approached and asked me if I were asking for empathy or offering it.  When I said I was offering it, he began almost immediately to speak very intensely about what sounded like an incredibly painful experience he was living through.  He got more and more emotionally agitated, and he spoke for about half an hour.  His voice got louder and louder.  He gestured broadly.  He expressed anger, and at one point some tears welled up. His energy built and built.  His saliva became foamy.  His words, tone, and body language conveyed an almost unbearable desperation about the situation.

I could not tell whether his story was “real,” or whether some mental condition had conjured an elaborate, agonizing ordeal that he simply believed to be real.  The story involved multiple court cases; a newborn son in the Philippines whom he was not allowed to see, and who might be at risk of being sold; harassment and arrests by various law enforcement agencies, despite no legal or moral wrongdoing on his part; and multiple unanswered letters and phone calls to various government agencies, both locally and overseas.

He kept saying things like, “Who will listen to me?” and “Who will help me?”  But he didn’t seem to be actually seeking responses.  I listened intently for about ten minutes – while onlookers paused and took in the scene, wearing a variety of facial expressions – but then he began moving slightly down the sidewalk, addressing others on the library steps rather than me.  He shouted toward them for about another fifteen minutes.  I wondered if this opportunity for expression was helping him in some way.  I hoped it was.  However, the lack of immediate, tangible “help” from anyone listening seemed to disappoint, frustrate, and sadden him.  When he finally walked away, throwing a half-hearted “Thanks for your empathy” toward me over his shoulder, it didn’t appear that his emotional state had changed much.

I felt sad.  My hope and belief is generally that such opportunities for expression help people to feel better.  But, I guess it may not be true in all cases. And, of course they are only one small piece of someone’s life and circumstances.

After he left, I sat quietly for a few moments, with my sign folded so as not to be visible to others.  I let the experience soak in.

And then, with about a half hour left in what I had intended to be a 90-minute stint, I allowed the thoughts and feelings to ebb away… and I put up the sign again, and sat with a genuine – if a little less bright than earlier – smile, hoping to offer empathy to others.

Day One of Listening: Boston Common

Listening on Day One
Listening on Day One

On Sunday morning, June 2nd, I headed into town on the train, intending to sit and listen in Boston Common.  I got off at the appropriate stop, but wasn’t sure quite how to get to the park.  I glanced at the map on my phone, and started walking.  I asked a few people, but they turned out to be tourists.  Finally I found a local couple, who said, “That’s just where we’re headed!  Follow us!”  They took me on a winding route, and sure enough, I got where I wanted to be.  As we parted, the woman said, “I don’t know if I would trust strangers to lead me around an unfamiliar city!”  I had to smile at the irony of her statement, and I said, “I’m actually here in town in order to listen to strangers.”  She said, “Oh… well then, you’re off to a good start!”

Indeed.

And, my first on-the-street empathy session of the tour went as well as I had hoped.  On this hot and humid day, I stationed myself prominently on a sidewalk in Boston Common, near the Massachusetts statehouse.  As people began to notice me with my sign, I got thumbs up, words of encouragement and appreciation, high fives, people taking photos, people stopping to talk… it was just as rewarding as in Portland.  As I already knew, the need for empathy is universal.

A man visiting from overseas was the first to stop and ask what it was all about; he left with a smile on his face.  An enthusiastic young woman stopped to muse about hope, and whether it’s possible for people to change their lives, permanently, for the better.  A man who works as an advocate for homeless people stopped to talk about the challenges homeless people face, and the ways that non-homeless people and politicians could help.  Another man, homeless himself, talked about losing his job, and also reminisced about his time in the military, when he was respected and given freedom and empowerment of various kinds.  (Inwardly, I wondered and hoped about other, less violent, possibilities for ways people could find empowerment, adventure, and financial stability in their lives, since these things were clearly meaningful to him, as they are to all of us.)  Several other people stopped and talked about other topics.  As usual, I found it fulfilling to listen to whatever was real for people, and to converse about some topics that are meaningful to me.

Afterward, I met with a friend for lunch, and we walked together to the Boston Marathon memorial site.  As it turns out, it is right across from the Boston Public Library.  Both were spots I had considered for sitting with my sign… so now I have an official plan to do so.  Either tomorrow or Tuesday… and on the other of those two days, I will head to Harvard Square.

This evening I met up with some friends I had known in Portland, who now live in Salem.  They are graciously hosting me in their beautiful home; tomorrow I will head back to Boston via the ferry.  What a wonderful adventure this trip is!

The empathy tour begins!

Well, I’ve arrived in Boston!

The heat greeted me as soon as I stepped off the plane, punctuating my arrival on this coast.  I had a lovely conversation with the woman next to me on the plane, a longtime Bostonian originally from Puerto Rico.  She shared some of her life story, and those of her three children – one of whom lives in the Portland area – all of whom have chosen different life paths.

And, I’ve had a wonderfully warm welcome here so far!  My hosts are gracious and fascinating people, with extensive bookshelves full of all kinds of interesting-looking books about topics ranging from animal activism to NVC to polyamory to psychology/personal development to anarchism and all kinds of conscious ways of living.  I doubt I’ll have time to read any of them while I’m here, but it inspires me to simply be surrounded by such books and to know they exist.

One of my hosts, Hillary, treated me to dinner in Cambridge last night (where my father attended MIT in the 1960s) at the Veggie Galaxy restaurant; I hope and plan to return to Cambridge later in the trip.  Perhaps offer some empathy in Harvard Square?

Today I’ll be meeting up with a new friend for lunch, and then staying with a former coworker and her husband in Salem tonight.  I’m looking forward to seeing them.

And – most relevant to this blog, of course – I will be doing my first empathy stint of the tour today!  I’m excited, and a little nervous.  I will be using the same cardboard sign I made, and used, in Portland; after much effort and gnashing of teeth about how I could create a durable, packable, and waterproof sign – using Tyvek, wooden dowels, and tent-seam sealer – I finally realized I could simply fold my existing sign.  Not waterproof… but otherwise packable and fully functional. Duh. 🙂

So… I’m curious to see where I will choose to offer empathy first. Perhaps Boston Common?  And, of course, I’m curious to see how it will be received, and what I will hear.  I imagine it will be similar to Portland: people will be curious, some will want to talk about what I’m doing, and some will want to talk about whatever is on their minds or weighing on their hearts at the moment.  I expect I will receive it all joyfully and curiously.

Let the adventure begin!

An empathy tour!

It’s official! My East Coast Empathy Tour kicks off Saturday, June 1. I’m very excited, and curious as to what it will look like, on the street. The itinerary is as follows: Boston, June 1-4; New York, June 5-7, DC, June 8-12, and Raleigh, June 12-15. If you live in one of these areas – or know someone who does – and you have contacts or suggestions of where I should sit with my sign, I would love to hear from you.

I launched the Indiegogo fundraising campaign two days ago, and I’m so heartened to see people willing to contribute to my dream financially. I’m looking to raise $2500, to cover lost pay and travel expenses, so if you’re able to make even a small donation, I would be very grateful! Perks for contributing include Happy to Listen private empathy sessions and Dream Into Change inspiration/coaching sessions. (You can use them for yourself or a friend, or “pay it forward” so that I can offer a free session to someone who otherwise would not be able to afford it.)

In addition to funding, I am seeking to spread the word about this campaign, so if you can share the Indiegogo link or a link to this blog on your Facebook page or Twitter feed or email list, I would love that! I really want for this tour to help raise awareness of empathy as an important component for personal health and happiness, and cultural health and happiness.

I have been in touch with Edwin Rutsch of the Center for Building a Culture of Empathy, and he and I have been brainstorming about an “empathy bus” that could drive around the United States sometime next year, offering empathy and trainings to folks all around the country who are hungering for this, and even possibly heading to the White House to discuss what President Obama has publicly called a “deficit of empathy” in our culture.

So… there are all kinds of exciting possibilities percolating. I am thrilled to be making my own contribution to the movement by taking this East Coast tour. Thanks to all for your support!