Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Lens of Empathy

Countless times people have expressed their surprise upon hearing my story. Meant as a compliment, they say variations of, "I never would have known," or "I had no idea." I understand the sentiment behind those statements, but it does pose a question. How does the perception of the struggles of others influence how they are treated?

Television, big screen productions, and novels have filled our minds with images of how someone who has faced hardship should look and feel. We expect someone with a traumatic past to wear difficulty on her face, leave a string of violence in her path, battle addiction publicly, and/or cling to unhealthy relationships. When we meet someone who abuses herself with repeated bad choices, we comfort ourselves and explain the negativity away by concluding that she must have had a horrible history. We measure the level of past struggle by current self-inflicted hurt. Because of this flawed measurement system, when we encounter someone centered and positive we assume that her struggle has been light or that the sunshine is somehow dishonest. A more accurate conclusion is that not all who are living well have always had the best life has to offer.

How has your perception of struggle influenced how you treat others? On what factors have you based those perceptions? Are you more sympathetic to visible, known hardship? Everyone you encounter has been hurt. The father trying to set a positive example to his children, the cheerful woman working at your favorite clothing store, and the friend who is always making you laugh have all experienced heartache and are coping with it daily. You may not have witnessed the hurt, but that doesn't make it less real. Trade in the clouded and inconsistent lens of assumption for the more genuine lens of empathy. Reach out to those you love. Check in with your friends, even if you don't think they need it. They may surprise you.

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