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The Power of Empathy
Posted by Rosana Clarkson on Aug 30, 2009 - 6:26:24 AM

LOS ANGELES—Ever wonder why the guy in the car in front of you decided to drive deliberately slow in order to retaliate against your aggressive honking?  One reason could be that he was being rude.  Or, he could just be having a bad day. Or, he just lost his job, or a loved one to death, or discovered that he had cancer. In the case of the latter, he knows he'll die soon, so just wants to challenge you to a game of chicken.  ("C'mon chicken-#@*&!" he shouts at you.)

So society is suffering from a lack of empathy. It is the reason that mentally ill criminals are thrown in prison instead of in mental institutions, or the reason domestic abuse victims are blamed for their batterer's behavior when the batterer constantly blocks exits and other means of escape, or stalks them when they do leave.  Once we understand the full picture in every situation, could we then begin to know where the other person is coming from.

For example, think of somebody you wanted to hit with a sledgehammer last week.

Now, now, leave that sledgehammer alone, I just said think about it.

Now, call that person up, and decide to come up with an effective way of resolving the situation.  One technique I try is to grab a friend and concoct a scenario in which I play the role of someone who just got into a car accident, not only because I didn't know how to drive, but because I was drinking and going the wrong way down a one-way street without a seat belt on, and the car wasn't even mine. And I do this for the purpose of proving that rules don't scare me. 

So I crash into three cars overturning an 18-wheeler and seven police cars, (the latter seven on purpose, I think), and as I go over a cliff too drunk to open my parachute, I crash through the windshield and into the rocks below. 

I end up in a body cast at the ICU, and the helecopter crew that carried me there tells me it's something short of miraculous that I was able to sing "Ten Million Bottles of Beer on the Wall" during the whole trip because my jaw was shattered, and I didn't even remember the lyrics to the song.  Unfortunately, they had nothing to stop the pain.  The pain in their eardrums, that is, as they are also shattered.

So the accident is my fault, and the other person plays the role of the friend visiting me at the hospital.  The friend sees I received five thousand stitches and eight broken toes, internal bleeding that will require surgery, numerous cracked vertebrae, two collapsed lungs, and pieces of an old Rubix Cube that went under my foot and somehow traveled it's way up into my kneecap, but whether or not that's from the crash remains unclear.

So while I drink my Wheaties through a straw, the friend looks at me with deep compassion, shakes her head and says, "I am so sorry you are in so much pain." 

She weeps endlessly into her hands, looks at me with great sympathy and grief, blows her nose, looks at me, and weeps dramatically and soulfully again.

"Well," she then says, turning green after trying some of my untouched food.  "Let me go home and see if Victor and Nicky Newman remarry again." She turns to leave.

"Aren't you gonna tell me you hope I feel better?"

"Oh!"  She shouts. "How insensitive of me! I really should say something comforting, after all they really should make one-way streets a little wider these days."  She shrugs.  'And Rubix Cubes a little easier to solve."

At the door she snaps her fingers and adds, "Oh, and remember, you still owe me $50,000 for paying off your school loan. IF you survive the brain surgery."

"Yeah, whatever," I say, as she laughs in the doorway like Mumm-Ra from the ThunderCats. "Now can you please stop recording this on your Camcorder?"

As she hides the camera behind her back, she says, "By the way, here are some wonderful, beautiful roses to cheer you up.  I'll arrange them here on this vase for you."

"Those aren't roses," I say, "those are poisonous castor-oil flowers, and they cause symptoms such as sweating, labored breathing, and low appetite."

"That, and constipation, diarrhea, and death," she proudly adds, then her smile collapses. "I mean...anyway, enjoy your nasty cafeteria food and I will bring you some 'soothing' music you can listen to later.  Toodle-ooo."  She gracefully skips out the door.

The next day, the nursing staff informs me of a video on YouTube titled, "Rosana the Mummified Daredevil."

"The point of the video was to show kids why it's not a good idea to do foolish, insane, incredibly stupid and idiotic things," one of the nurses tell me.  "My 10-year-old son stopped jumping his skateboard over alligator pits.  Thank you so much!"  she shouts, wrapping her arms tightly around my neckbrace. 

So when we switch roles, my buddy admits that she didn't like being taped on the Camcorder while being taunted, and is worried about how the Rubix Cube somehow went up into her knee. I give her my one Rubix Cube from 1985 that miraculously wasn't hurled against the wall. 

As she handles it, she sweats and growls and hisses, eyes maniacally bloodshot and crossed---all within five seconds. But she is unable to voice her concerns due to her jaw being wired shut, and also unable to kick me in choice places.  

So having fun, I say, "If there is additional sequel to 'The Mummy' or 'Scooby Doo,' you should play the starring role in both."

She utters colorful language that fortunately cannot be understood past the mummy wrappings and jaw braces. I make faces at her, hopping and somersaulting around, taking total and complete advantage, as she expresses her incredible urge to jump out of the imaginary body cast and hit me over the head with the cane she had been given, along with the camcorder with I am now using. She also fantasizes about shoving me down the hospital's entire 18 flights of stairs.

"I would laugh at you while we both await our surgeries," she snarls in the voice of The Exorcist."

"Aw, lighten up, girlfriend," I say, lounging in a chair at her bed side, watching old cartoons on the mounted TV.  Pointing, I shout,  "Hey, look at that!  Isn't Mighty Mouse a super-hunk?  I totally agree that he is hot, as your diaries from age five on up indicate," I say, as she growls ominously.

So not long after we conduct this scenario, a real case scenario of it actually happens, with both of us bedded down flat on our butts in traction and really enjoying our suberb quality time.

"You know," my friend says, as we lie there in our body casts watching back-to-back hours of comedy marathons, "this is the life. No work.  No errands to run.  Endless hours of The Marx Brothers. Not having to move unless we undergo procedures that require hour after hour of blindingly excruciating pain.  We really should kill each other more often," she says, as an army of fire ants apparently pick up on the smell of a popcorn piece that flew inside one of my eyeholes. From her direction.

"Yeah," I say, tearing off one of the castor-oil plants with my teeth and spit-shooting it.  "This is so cool.  I almost forgot about all the YouTubers who laughed at my violent fall down the stairs shortly before this.  What did they title it?  Oh.  'Best Acrobatic Trick.' My, isn't Harpo just darling?" I ask, as my friend chokes on the castor-oil plant.

So even though a situation is someone's fault, it's never helpful to tell them that when they obviously already know it. It's always a good idea to understand the other person's perspective. That is what empathy is: seeing the situation from the point of view of the other person...and then sending a catalogue titled, "Top-of-the-Line Products for Nose-Pickers" later.


Cliffside Malibu




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