Thursday, November 3, 2016

The Empathy Project

Undergraduate school is a blur, but a few things stand out. I took classes in recreation therapy and sometimes we took on the limits of the populations we would be serving, in order to experience a partial view of their lives and limitations.

We had to spend one class period breathing through a straw. This gave us some insight into people who suffer from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). It was tough, but it was an effective way to create empathy.

The most impactful experiment occurred when I spent a day on campus in a wheel chair. People ignored me, stared with pity, and I was faced the physical difficulties of living in a world built for those who could walk and run. That was more than 45 years ago, yet I vividly remember how marginalized I felt and the responses of the people who looked down on me or looked away as they passed by. I have never since looked at people who are wheel chair bound the same way. Now they are equals, and before, I was unaware of my prejudice. I felt sorry for people in wheel chairs; fortunately, I moved from sympathy to empathy.

In later life I experienced a simulated poverty experience – what is was like to live on minimum wage and have a dependent family. Another experience created living in the Middle East in a war zone. I experienced disease, lack of clean water, a punitive educational system, and the angst of not knowing where the next bomb would come from. I had to perform a surgery simulation with improper tools and spend time in a dark cave like area. I would hear a loud explosion, then the area shook as if a bomb was landing a few feet from where I was hiding.

We are isolated in our culture. We hang out with those of similar resources. We ride around in cars by ourselves when carpooling might give us a medium for developing or deepening friendships. We chose convenience and want to be sure we can leave when we want to and not have to wait on another. Our busy lives often dictate who we relate with and how we relate to others. But in that busy-ness, we lose a part of our hearts. We lose touch with humanity as we separate ourselves from the greater whole.

I’ve never ridden the transit system in Houston or the downtown train. I have no idea what it is like to live on the bottom or to have to rely on others or public transportation to get around. I am teachable and plan to ride the bus from The Woodlands to downtown Houston and ride the train around the city, just to view life from another perspective.

I challenge you to limit yourself in some way. The following suggestions are ones you might try. These experiments may give you an understanding of how others live and create a new dimension of compassion and empathy. You may want to get friends or family to join in your personal Empathy Project.

·       Bathe with a small pail of cold water each day for a week. You have to use this water to wash your hair and meet all your bathing needs. While this seems like a drastic experiment to some, there are many people who don’t have clean water to bathe in. While in India, at the foothills of the Himalayas, I had one small pail of water to bathe with. The temperature was in the 30’s F. during the day and my room was not heated. I didn’t bathe daily, but that experience not only gave me an understanding of what others endured, it exposed a sense of entitlement I had about water and showed how much of our precious resource I wasted. I actually felt clean after bathing with a limited amount of water. Try this. I think you will be shocked at what you might learn.

·       Talk to a homeless person. Ask them about their lives. Once I spent about an hour on a public street talking to a homeless man. I asked him how he ended up on the street. He had a long series of mishaps that led to his homelessness. He told me about his injured feet. I asked to see them. He took off his shoes and showed me his frost bitten and bleeding feet. I held them in my hands and sent them all the love and energy I could muster. I listened and I think in some way he was served because I saw him, really saw him. If you chose to do this, of course, be safe. I was on a very public street with others walking past. It is always imperative when we move outside our comfort zones, that we remember our personal safety.

·       Do not spend any money for a week except to buy food, pay bills, or to cover your transportation costs. This self-imposed money restriction plan provides insight into the limits under which 45 million Americans live. There is little hope in their future and they have no money to buy clothes, eat out, or for recreation. This experiment can also reveal toxic spending patterns.

·       Wear the same outfit all day for two days. You don’t change when you get home from work. You don’t wear special exercise clothes. Many people don’t have the luxury of choosing what to wear. See what it is like to live without a choice in your wardrobe.

·       Breathe through a straw for 10 minutes. How does it feel to have impaired breathing? This gives us empathy for those who have COPD and asthma.

Make up your personal experiments of voluntary suffering. In EZosophy we work to eliminate ego driven suffering, but when we choose to walk in the shoes of others, we expand our limited perspective. For more than I year I refrained from eating for ½ day a week. It was a fast for peace. While it may not have been the whole-hearted demonstration of Gandhi, it made the idea of peace real in a personal way.

Empathy is not sympathy. Sympathy creates burden, but empathy opens the doors from which love flows. Challenging ourselves to move out of our comfort and convenience zones moves us into a place where we invite more than a few family members, colleagues, and friends into our hearts. As loves stirs and light shines into the hidden places and spaces in our lives and hearts, we can be sure that life will be EZier and EZier.