The Power of Empathy

(The essay was originally published at The Good Men Project)

It was only a few hours after high noon on a cloudless Saturday in Southern California. The weather permitted to go outside, but I felt otherwise. Sunk into my couch, I was comfortably lazy watching Stranger Things.

Then Charlie, my wife, spoke words that woke Hank (our dog) from his siesta: "You want to go for a walk?" Hank is a division one napper. But those words lit him up like a Christmas tree. He pounced up a with his ears peaked.

We grabbed two doggie bags because he never goes once. He marked his terrority all the way down the street - even when he had nothing left to give.

It felt nice to get outside. The sun was warm but not overwhelming, and the open field of Founder's Park was refreshing.

By now, Hank was as excited as a piglet in a muddy pit.

White boxers tend to develop blindness at an early age and Hank is no exception. But I sense that his other abilities are heightened because of his lack of site. Even before we approach the space where we usually let him off the leash, he knows it's almost time to run free. Sometimes, though, he makes a damn fool of himself because of his elation; tugging on the leash so hard he starts to hack violent coughs while his eyes turn crimson. 

"Hey," I say firmly with a fast pull of the like, "Sit." He looks at me and knows he needs to fallback. He sits. But his eagerness is only mildly tamed. He's ready.

Charlie is about 30 feet away from us shouting his name, "C'mon Hank. Let's go!"

The moment I unhooked my boy, he took off in a dead sprint. I'm always impressed with his nimbleness and long stride when he does this.

What happened next was something Hank, nor I could have foreseen. On his way to tackle his mama, Hank ran into a tree at full speed. His sight had failed him again.

Upon impact, the tree shook but didn't move. Hank shouldered the brunt of this collision.

He looked like a prize fighter who had been knocked into a daze. Having been hit by a blow he didn't' see coming, he was wobbling back and forth, trying to figure what had happened; or where he was.

Instinct took over. Charlie and I ran over to him to make sure he was okay. He was not okay. The tree had done a number on Hank. The external wounds were minor. He had a gash over his right eye that looked like the middle of a medium-rare rib eye steak.

The real damage was done between his ears. When I looked in his eyes and asked him, "Are you okay bud?" I didn't find my dog. I found a mammal that was confused. Lost. Hurt. Panicked.

So we sat there for a while with Hank, until he came back. His breathing returned to normal. The lost gaze was gone. And that goofy smile he has when he gets excited surfaced again.

We got up and started to walk the open field. Hank followed with extreme caution, sniffing every inch to make sure there were no trees. After a while, though, with our encouragement and guidance, he soon began to loosen up. The timidness began to crumble, and he began to gallop again. Soon, he'd be back to sprinting all over the place, with his jowls flapping freely.

Empathy allowed Hank to recover. Charlie and I sat with him, and then we guided him back to normalcy. The support was at a cadence he could handle. We were just there to support him.

Human cohesion relies on the very same thing. Without empathy, we resort to relating to each other as things, on par with a street lamp or coffee mug. When this happens, we are unable to experience empathy. This posture lends to a cold environment. One filled with stuff and information but woefully absent of any human warmth.

If instead, we realize that each of us, at some point, will run into a tree running at full speed, we become awake. The awareness teaches us that sometimes we need to be the ones showing support and sometimes we are the wounded ones needing help.

In either case, it's nourishment that can't be found anywhere else.

Life's landscape is filled with peaks and valleys; this we know to be true. We will run into trees that will shake but not move. And just like a Hank who must keep running to stay alive, we too, after we've recovered, must keep running through our days.

Empathy helps us to keep going. And when we make it to the other side, we become wounded healers armed and ready to help somebody else.