Stray Kernels – Empathy

November 18, 2019

“Empathy is getting down on your knees and looking someone else in the eye, and realizing that you could be them, and that all that separates you is luck.” ~Dennis Lehane, American writer

It’s a judgy world out there.

I’m constantly aware of the discourse around food and farming. The divide between farmers and non-farmers is vast. I see and hear farmers describing urban dwellers as clueless. I hear assumptions from non-farmers that farmers are short-sighted and greedy. I see a lot of snap judgments, and very little empathy.

It’s true in agriculture and beyond:

“What kind of parents would put their kids through that?”

“That’s what they get for buying all of that big equipment.”

“What was she wearing?”

Whether you’ve said it, thought it, or heard it said about you, chances are at least one of these statements just raised your blood pressure.

Judgement often takes the form of implicitly blaming others for their misfortune. It’s a protective mechanism; you screwed up and now you’re in trouble but I know better than to make that same mistake, so I won’t end up with that same trouble.

My husband and I once argued about the color of a new house we passed frequently. “It’s sage, or kind of a dusty green,” I declared. “No, it’s mint green,” he said. We each defended our ideas of “mint” vs. “sage” but it didn’t help. As petty as the topic was, we actually got pretty heated over it. I thought his assertion was ridiculous. He felt the same way about mine.

Weeks later, a conversation about food likes and dislikes came up at work. I mentioned an article I’d read about a genetic variation that impacts how cilantro tastes—to some people, it actually tastes like soap. As I spoke, I had a flash of insight.

Not only do we taste things differently, I realized, we all see things differently. Some people have red-green color blindness. Others are totally color-blind, yet others not at all. The flash in my brain grew brighter as I realized this variation is true for all of our senses. I can often hear high pitches that others can’t. Certain candle aromas others enjoy make me feel a little sick.

People feel pain differently. We describe people we know as remaining stoic through a painful condition as “strong,” sending the message that anyone who mentions their pain is “weak.” We speak admirably of those with a high tolerance for physical discomfort and poke fun at “man flu.” But science tells us that how we experience pain can be as different as how we see color.

What does all this have to do with empathy?

Years ago, I was chatting with a neighbor while standing in the kitchen. He glanced at our refrigerator and said, “You’re not tall enough to see the top of the fridge, are you?” he asked. “No, why?” Chuckling, he said, “Because it looks like it hasn’t been dusted since you moved in.” Being several inches taller, he could clearly see something I couldn’t. He was perceptive enough to understand why, and empathetic enough to add, “If I couldn’t see it, I’d probably never clean it, either.”

Empathy means realizing that everyone is coming at this world from a different place than you, and then being willing to imagine yourself in that place—without judgement. Our upbringing, our experiences, our background knowledge, our education, our gender, our height, our genetics, our age, our everything determines what we do, how we act, and what we believe.

Empathy means suspending judgement while digging a little deeper. My neighbor could have silently judged my housekeeping deficiencies. Instead, he took an extra moment to understand the reason behind the perceived problem. Learning more about the challenges of farming helps non-farmers appreciate why specific equipment or practices are used. Truly listening to the concerns of consumers helps farmers understand their validity.

If our divisions seem larger than the things that pull us together, maybe it’s because we’re settling for judgement instead of striving for empathy. Judgement is easy. “They’re just wrong, period.” Or, “They got what they deserved.” Empathy is harder; it requires more thought and effort. Empathy means learning more, thinking more, asking more questions, and being willing to listen to the answers.

Can we do it?