Gratitude, then Empathy

Yesterday, we woke up in New Haven, Connecticut – about 2.5 hours from our home in Sullivan. We performed twice for a client who has been loyal to us for over twenty years. I don’t think about stuff like this enough, but it’s really a cause for celebration to know that our work and what we offer children is appreciated. I was genuinely touched by the number of teachers who approached us and said, “We love you, we’re glad you’re back or you are so good with the children.” I feel immense gratitude, today.

In the afternoon, we delivered meals to folks who are living in near-poverty conditions. Beth and I have been doing this for a few months. Often, I don’t think enough about this part of my life, either. I live in a community where there are people and families who live a life considerably less comfortable than mine. Yes, we deliver the meals, but I believe that I am still learning how to develop empathy for the people we serve.

Why?

I think I was consciously trained by my upper-middle-class tribe to give some time or money to my fellow humans but to more fully concentrate on my own life and pursuit of happiness. I think I was taught to fear loving others lest it take me away from my own path to comfort. Lately, that feels like it’s not enough, that I am still of a mind to deny some of the inequalities in this country. And that feels, increasingly, like something I would like to change in myself. And, if I’m honest, I think it’s something we Americans need to change, too.

It takes some courage to reach beyond our comfort zone, especially when it literally makes one feel discomfort. When I drive into a town that’s full of empty storefronts, for example, and pull up to a house that’s in massive disrepair, greet a person at the door who seems embarrassed or shy about accepting a tray of food from us, it’s nearly impossible not to feel sadness or think about the difference between my life and the lives of my neighbors. It’s very plain to see when I’m ready to see.

When we first started delivering meals, I think I tried to deny some of the feelings about poverty I was witnessing by replacing it with gratitude for my own life – my comfortable home, our well-paying job, the money we have in the bank or the food in our refrigerator. Evidently, I was not ready to face the inequalities head-on…yet.

Perhaps, I am just slow to give us credit for turning the page in our development. Gratitude is very important, for sure, but I think it’s a longer road to becoming empathetic. For me, this requires feeling something for those who are hungry or sad in my town. Then, I can also recognize the suffering in Guatemala, Ukraine, Libya or Morocco. To me, this is the next stage of emotional maturity, the willingness to move through my own feelings and then, eventually, notice and empathize with those around me.

The Adventure continues.

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