I could stand to be more empathetic. I’ve suspected that for a while now, but it became more obvious this week, when snow kept me from the gym.
More often than not, Midwesterners do a good job of clearing sidewalks and parking lots after snow storms, but my gym is an exception. The owners and/or management who took control about a year ago seem to have adopted the Southern response to winter precipitation, i.e. leave it alone and let the sun take care of it. If they do happen to use a shovel, they clear the most meager of paths. They recently cleared a narrow path next to the building by the handicapped parking, leaving a ridge of snow between the parking spots and the cleared area. They might as well have saved the effort – there aren’t very many skilled high-jumpers or hurdlers where I park.
Detachment like that leaves me shaking my head and asking questions. Don’t they understand that gym patrons, particularly those who park where I do, need a cleared surface in order to enter the gym safely? If they spent a day in my shoes, they would realize how dangerous slippery surfaces can be. There’s the catch: they’ve never been in my shoes, and because of that, they likely lack the empathy that an experience like that would provide.
It’s hard to be as empathetic as we should be, because we rarely understand the full extent of most challenges. We look derisively at the mother using food stamps or the scowling teenager at the mall, because we’re so sure that we’re superior or could do better in their shoes. Yet, we don’t know their entire story. If we did, we would probably be embarrassed by our attitude. Many times, our judgment isn’t as sound as we believe it to be.
Before age and the wear and tear of my awkward gait took its toll on my body, I often scoffed at the numerous handicapped parking stalls at gyms. Are there really that many handicapped people in a gym, I thought to myself. If I could park in a regular spot and walk in, so too should almost anyone else. I learned the hard way just how wrong I was.
That’s not where the irony ends. My experiences with a physical handicap occasionally give me an unfounded sense of superiority, especially in areas of effort. If I could do it, why can’t they? In thinking like this, I discount all of my other advantages and likely discount the challenges of those I judge. There’s almost always an untold story.
I was at a high school basketball game a few years back, and the volunteer keeping the clock was struggling. It was a tight game where every play mattered, and this poor guy kept screwing up the time. He’d either stop the clock too soon or too late, and the bleachers were full of people eager to point out his mistakes. More than once, the game had to be stopped to allow for a scoreboard adjustment. I had a similar experience in the same role at a youth football game, so I could empathize with his situation. I silently wished that those sitting around me had such empathy, as I watched him get flustered.
None of us knew that he had brain cancer and would die after a three-year struggle. I’m not even sure if the cancer was affecting him at the time or if he had even been diagnosed. When I learned of the diagnosis though, I immediately thought back to that game and wondered how many boo-birds regretted their behavior that night.
A lack of empathy toward my sidewalk challenges at the gym made me look internally at my own shortcomings in that area. Don’t wait until something like this happens to you. Strive to be more empathetic. It can’t hurt.