Vibing with Cat White
Recently, there’s been a lot of talk about empathy, and the lack of it currently being exhibited by some of our fellow citizens and those in power.
Empathy is the ability to understand and sympathize with the experiences and perspectives of those who may differ from our own. Failure to understand the perspectives of women, POC, the LGBTQIA+ community, proponents of public health safety, anti-vaxx/maskers, Trump supporters, comedians, etc. is being examined via a variety of national conversations right now.
At my previous job, staff were asked to take a Strengthsfinder test a few years ago to determine what characteristics we had that we could tap into to help enhance our job performance. My top strength happens to be empathy - a blessing and a curse. It’s great to be able to read nonverbal cues to know how someone is feeling or to have the ability to step outside of my own experience and attempt to understand where someone else is coming from.
I think I was environmentally predisposed to be empathetic - The child of a black man and a white woman growing up in public housing surrounded by a variety of ethnicities, class, and religious affiliations cultivated a certain understanding and acceptance of different ideologies, traditions and lifestyles.
Also, for whatever reason, one of the first professions I ever wanted to be as a kid, was an archeologist. I’m naturally curious and the idea of traveling to a faraway land, searching for and uncovering former civilizations, and trying to determine how humans lived hundreds or thousands of years ago, was particularly exciting to this small town multiethnic girl who was filled with inquisitiveness and imagination.
Some of my favorite memories have been of traveling outside the Southern Tier and my exposure to different people and cultures throughout the country and around the globe. Experiences that expanded my empathic abilities.
Early on, ventures outside of my environment included frequent trips across the New York/Pennsylvania border to visit my grandma in Sayre, Pa. First, to her house on Olive Street with its wrap-around porch, and then to her apartment in an elderly living center, located a short distance from “Banana Curve” on North Keystone Avenue, where we bought fresh local produce at the farmer’s stand there.
I remember taking several annual summer drives to my grandma’s family’s farm in Germania, Pa., where I attended county fairs and chased greased pigs right along with the rest of the farm children growing up in rural Pennsylvania. As many old-school cartoons have illustrated, the country mouse and the city mouse live very different experiences, even if the city is small.
In grade school, I was lucky enough to go on a field trip to New York City, where we got to take a ferry ride and saw “Annie” on Broadway! And for several summers, our babysitter, who was more like one of our village’s moms, took some of the kids she cared for on many summer vacations to Ocean Grove, N.J., a beach resort town that used to bar cars from driving on the streets on Sundays.
While attending E.F.A., my Latin class took a memorable trip to Toronto. I’ve been a big fan of Canada ever since.
With fondness, I remember traveling to the state capital to visit my best friend, who attended college there. I’d go up some weekends and spend it with her and her future husband, and their college friends, watching football (and Columbo!!), smoking weed, eating pizza and wings, drinking beer, and enjoying the HELL out of being outside of my small hometown.
In 1995, I traveled cross-country by myself to visit an aunt who’d moved to southern California. In high school I had dreamed of being a valley girl who lived on the beach in Malibu. Talk about a culture shock! Traffic jams, mountain lions roaming neighborhood streets, and liquor sold in grocery stores are just a few of the west coast differences I encountered and had to adjust to. Small earthquakes were also a new experience, as was that west coast laid back vibe. I spent a few weeks with my family in Agoura Hills before traveling up PCH 1 and through the wilds of the northwestern U.S. on my way to visit my other aunt in Bozeman, MT.
I’ve written previously about the culture shock I’ve experienced since moving “down south”. Since coming to Texas over 10 years ago, I’ve been adjusting to different perspectives on everything from food to American history to regional characteristics such as a slower pace (my theory is southerners move, talk and, generally conduct business slower than northerners, due to temperature. It’s usually too hot to do anything fast in the south).
It hasn’t always been easy but the moments when I’ve tapped into my strong sense of empathy have helped me make friends and excel at work. The times when I haven’t been empathetic, tend to have led to misunderstandings and feelings of frustrations felt by myself and others.
I also learned tons about empathy through the TV shows I watched as a kid. I grew up in the 1970s and 80s, during the early, fertile days of children’s public television, as well as an incredibly diverse arts and entertainment landscape. Shows like Sesame Street, The Electric Company, Zoom, and Magic Garden informed my inter-relational experiences, helping me to embrace diversity instead of fear it as a developing child. I also watched a variety of television in my youth, depending on whom I was with at the time. I watched about three straight hours of soap operas a day with the sitter (I was supposed to be napping but, who could sleep through the daytime dramas of Victor and Nikki or the Hughes, Walshes and Snyders?!). Hee Haw and Lawrence Welk were on the TV while visiting my grandma on the weekends; and everything from The Brady Bunch to Little House on the Prairie, The Jeffersons, All in the Family and M*A*S*H, and Good Times were watched regularly at home, providing exposure to lots of different ideas.
Empathy may sometimes seem wishy-washy. Particularly, in politics. However, the ability to see an issue or concern from numerous perspectives usually seems to provide a better opportunity to find a solution that benefits all.
Spending the last decade working for an organization that relied on support from as many members of the Texas Legislature as possible to pass meaningful legislation for the state’s nurses, I learned the importance and art of exercising empathy towards opponents in effort to find common ground. We searched for opportunities to collaborate with Republicans and Democrats, alike, on issues such as protecting nurses from workplace violence or ensuring they have the PPE to be properly protected from infectious illnesses, or enough staff to safely care for patients, etc. Important concerns within the nursing profession that must be addressed to keep the state’s health system operating optimally.
Empathy isn’t always easy. Particularly, when considering ideas or traditions outside of our own understanding and experience. But, in addition to encouraging camaraderie and appreciation of our fellow human beings, empathy can be used to change an opponent’s mind or find common ground. The more one understands the viewpoints of all those involved, the better opportunity they have to develop a solution that benefits everyone.
All of us, no matter what corner of the world we call home, need this planet and one another to survive. The human experience is expansive and varied but it’s a reality all humans inhabit and share. Our lives and our shared human experience is enriched when we entertain perspectives other than our own, improving our coexistence on earth.