Extra empathy, please

It was already an “off” day before the guy with the Great Dane at the stop sign made me cry.

The light outside is melancholy again this week, grey and ominous, the trees and grass glowing practically neon from the weekend’s much needed rain. I always write on these days. My elderly neighbor blows over in the wind toward the purple tree on the property line he shares with our other neighbor, and I watch from my kitchen window as he brings a branch close to his face, inspecting up close the blossoming buds.

I just did the same with the trees at Lake Harriet, where I walked to make myself feel better when I woke up not wanting to wake up at all. I thought walking would help me out of the funk faster; I need about 8-10 hours of sleep these days and 2-10 cups of coffee, just to be okay.

Empaths love being near the water, and I am no exception. But I only made it halfway around the lake before realizing the garden was open, and white petals from tree flowers shaken down in a recent storm lay like a carpet in front of the gate. It made for a great turning-around spot, and an even better photo.

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Just beyond this royal court of trees, a garden.

This is what I’m thinking about this week, what I’m trying to process: I don’t know how to feel about my state reopening and moving toward business as usual again. I miss my friends and my hair desperately needs a cut, but everything seems to be happening so quickly. Life at the lake seems almost like nothing happened over the past few months, except that all the parkways are closed to cars and there are way more people everywhere. Back home, I exchange texts with another Lake Harriet mom who can’t believe summer soccer kickoff is in just two weeks. We’re all so used to being home, and it feels wrong to gather again in such a big group, but what’s the “right” way to do any of this?

I have appreciated my excused absence from the rest of the world, this time at home to watch movies and read and think. But I say that from a position of privilege; Christian and I have been able to work off and on during this time, albeit in a limited capacity, and we are doing okay. So what this has *really* meant for us is seeing less people socially. It has been an adjustment, most of all for Lola, and for me.  Quarantine has forced me to confront my “that sounds fun!” syndrome, and ask myself what really holds me back — is it time, or is it me trying too hard again? It’s given me distance to ask myself who my friends actually are, which is a potentially dangerous question to ask oneself in the middle of a global crisis. It’s meant I’ve spent more time than ever before with Lola and Christian – for better or worse, mostly better! And, I’ve talked with my mom more than ever during the pandemic because hello, these are scary times and she’s my mom and also I finally have THE TIME.

I learned my mother hates it when people on the news call this, “the new normal”,  because as she likes to say, “There is NOTHING normal about this!”. She is right to some degree. I like to call it “the new now”, as in, “Gee, this new now looks so different from all the nows before it!”. It helps to stay in the present and not think too hard about things I can’t control, like whether or not this *is* our new normal.

Wind whips through the trees, hushing all the critters inside before another incoming storm. The air makes sure I know what’s coming, showing up in surround sound from where I sit back in the sunroom, writing. There is no sun today.

I stopped at a local store on my way home to pick up an online order; both the shop owner and I donned masks before meeting on the sidewalk for the goods. Two months in, this part still feels dystopian — or like a weird drug drop, anonymous because we wear masks (which are, like everything else in the current events, hotly debated). More evidence of the new now. It all feels a little insane.

But stranger to me than the masks vs. no masks debate is the way this pandemic has brought out the very best in some people, and the utter worst in others. I’ll meet the most wonderful cashier and have a phenomenal conversation at Trader Joes, just in time to meet the meanest person I’ve ever met in the parking lot. I’m having a hard time approaching these interactions empathetically!

Take Stop Sign Guy for example, who made me cry as I mentioned earlier and it doesn’t even matter why. People are keyed up, and not for no reason — these are STRESSY TIMES. Everyone everywhere is operating at a heightened level of anxiety, whether or not they even realize. And I realized in my interaction with Stop Sign Guy who decided to chew me out, that the only person I can control in any interaction? Is me.

Everyone’s a little more sensitive, a little more rage-filled, a little more afraid. So, where does fear come from? Anger can feel contagious, but what is it fed by? Is the opposite of rage actually mercy?

How do we starve our anger and fear at once? The only answer I can think of is kindness, and love.

Titus 3:4-5 New International Version 

But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of mercy.

I decided to drive around and let myself cool off and think about kindness and mercy and this idea of personal autonomy in our everyday interactions a bit further. A change in scenery always encourages a mindset shift.

My friend Katie Steller loves to remind everyone that “If fear is contagious, why can’t kindness be?”

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So, I started to think about how I could have approached Stop Sign Guy differently, literally. How maybe, it could be, I had scared him by pulling up on the crosswalk too quickly, even if i had every intention of stopping, was well within my lane, and gave him plenty of room. I still came up on it fast – and my carelessness may have added to the fear he’s already experiencing as a Person Living Through a Pandemic.

I could have given him a smile instead of attitude when he yelled at me. Maybe, like me, he’s thinking overtime about what all of the possible outcomes could be given any situation, but especially due to the country’s “reopening”.

Or maybe he was just a jerk, but I can’t control any of that. All I can control is my own reaction.

And yeah, I felt frazzled and keyed up today myself and I wanted to stay in bed, but that’s just my today. Maybe that’s Stop Sign Guy’s every day — especially if he’s a jerk — and for that I need to look at him with eyes of empathy.

em·pa·thy

  1. the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

And isn’t that just like love?

“I still believe with all my heart that the most powerful force for change in the world is love.” — Becca Stevens, Episcopal priest, founder of Thistle Farms

In order to love others, personally, I need to set my heart right. I need to spend some quality time in meditation and prayer with God, who first taught me how to be kind and who places my heart on the path of kindness whenever I am open to it. It’s been a while. But whenever I begin like this it sets me up for a day of operating not in defensiveness, but in lovingkindness: how Jesus lived every day, or what the yogis call Metta.

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My dorky yoga teacher Jason – i miss that hot sweaty room so much!

We need extra empathy, please, when everything feels like insanity. It’s the only way to survive in the new now.

I know it’s hard; it’s not my first instinct either.

But the beautiful thing is? Whenever I find myself in this kind of a mess again, unable to remember what empathy even means because I’m exhausted with a worried heart about the future, I remember I can start over at any moment — living right before God who loves us, equipped with new mercies for myself and to extend to others. I don’t even have to wait for tomorrow, because God meets us where we’re at.

Thanks, God.

Lamentations 3:22-23 English Standard Version

22 The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
    his mercies never come to an end;
23 they are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness!

Nehemiah 9:17 New Life Version

17b But You are a forgiving God. You are kind and loving, slow to anger, and full of loving-kindness. You did not leave them.

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