“What is this salty discharge?” — Jerry Seinfeld, crying for the first time, on Seinfeld.
Something strange has been happening to me lately. I’m developing empathy.
Once in my 30s I had a calendar for Geminis that described us as “good listeners… as long as you’re interesting” and I had to laugh, because that pretty much nailed me. For most of my life other people fell into two categories: interesting, and not. Those in the “not” category barely existed for me — they were formless blobs who had to really get in my face to even come into focus.
I wasn’t some kind of psycho; I managed to get married, have friends, raise a kid, and I think I was pretty present in relationships.
But for the most part it was as if a glass wall existed between me and other people. The wall, I suppose, was my judgment and control, which in turn were driven by a deeper sense of powerlessness and fear.
I turned 50 a year and a half ago. It was a trauma. How could I be 50? I mean, I dug the benefits of getting older: more wisdom, more poise, better judgment. But in my mind I was more like a 25 year old who was getting very cool. The idea that I could no longer be considered young by any objective measure was pretty sobering.
On the heels of that came a few serious difficulties and intense life changes that I won’t go into here, coupled with deeper spiritual practice including meditation and yoga.
And lately, more and more, everyone is interesting. I find myself much less focused on advancing my agenda and point of view, and instead just watching. Really paying close attention to people, noticing the tiny flickers of expression that cross their faces, listening to the gaps and pauses between their words, and hearing what they’re really saying.
And it’s breaking my heart a little bit, because what I’m seeing so often is that powerlessness and fear in them. The harsh self judgment, the shame, the anxiety. The little child that’s still there, innocently looking for love and validation (thanks for the video, Mina), and so often not finding it. What William Blake was talking about in “London.”
It’s changing me. Like a couple of weeks ago when our dishwasher broke and I had all kinds of crazy difficulties with HH Gregg. I ended up in the store with my fistful of paperwork, righteously and justifiably pissed off, engaging in a tug of war with a pompous middle manager over their policies and procedures.
At a certain point, I stopped talking, and started watching.
The middle manager just wanted to be right. He had his little square of turf, and on that turf he was the king. He had a few things to say. And I realized that he was going to give me everything I wanted, but only after he made his little stand. So I let him. It didn’t cost me anything (except 20 minutes) and I walked out with a free $175 upgrade, and a somewhat belated apology. And I made a point of thanking him, using his name, and giving him that little bit of respect he was craving.
It works the other way, too. There are people I love, and in the past they just got the stamp of approval and that was that. I took it for granted that they knew they had my affection, and secure in that assumption, I said whatever I wanted and only noticed their pain or their needs if they specifically brought them up. Now I’m really seeing, and it’s astonishing that these beautiful, radiant people are experiencing so much confusion and self doubt.
I hesitate to put all this out here. Maybe you all have this empathy, and I’m just an arrogant asshole who’s getting older and scared about it, and finally becoming “nice.” But even if that’s true, it’s okay. A whole new world is opening up in front of me. Everyone has something to tell me… something important. I’m paying attention now. Better late than never.