Empathy isn’t just an affliction for psychic vampire musicians. It’s a very real thing that strikes when you least expect it, like on a sunny Saturday morning through a window.
Every Saturday I work the front desk at Thrive fitness studio where I take Nia classes. I’ve been doing it for a couple of years now, and it’s always a good way to start my weekend – nothing like riding the energy groove of a class full of happy dancing people to put a smile on your face.
The studio shares its parking lot with a veterinary clinic, so I often see people arriving with their dogs and walking across the narrow street from the lot to the vet’s office. I’ve seen all sorts of canines and all sorts of humans with them.
This morning I was in the middle of marking off class cards when a luxury SUV pulled into the parking lot and all but flew into a space. A blonde woman in her mid 30s and a typical dude-bro looking man got out and ran around to the back of the vehicle. They opened the hatch, revealing a large dog crate.
Right away I knew something terrible had happened. The woman opened the crate door and reached inside…then a moment later backed up, hands going to her mouth. The husband (?) didn’t seem to know what to do, so he stood there patting her back awkwardly.
I realized I had just seen their dog die.
The woman lost it. Completely. Right there on the curb, she went to her knees and threw up into the landscaping, then sat rocking back and forth sobbing for several minutes. The husband ran into the clinic and came back with a cup of water for her. Finally he helped her to her feet, caught her when she nearly passed out, and the two closed the SUV’s door and walked into the clinic together. He had seemed kind of helpless in the face of her pain, but once he figured out practical ways he could help her, he was pretty amazing.
By the time they came out, the woman was calmer, but she had that shell-shocked look people always get when death strikes them out of the clear blue nowhere. They got back in the SUV and drove away much more slowly than they’d arrived, taking their dog back home.
I managed not to break down sobbing while I was behind the desk – there’s nothing more awkward than walking in on a crying woman – but as soon as I got in my car I had a brief but intense moment of weeping for the woman, the husband, and their dog. I felt terrible, not just because of what had happened, but because I felt like I had intruded on what should have been private grief. I tried, in my clumsy way, to send them love – love for the dog, as he or she passed; and love for the humans he left behind, especially the woman who loved him so much she broke down in the middle of a busy Saturday on South Congress.
On the outside these were not the sort of people I would ever have spent time with out in the world. But we’ve all felt that kind of pain, that sweeping loss that washes everything away. I found myself thinking about other people I’d seen that morning. The lady who cut me off in traffic – what if she did that because her dog had just died and she was driving his body home to bury, her eyes overflowing with tears? What about the weird smelling guy at the post office? Any one of the people in the studio at that moment dancing? I know from experience that to dance is to free stuck emotions and break up energetic stagnation, so any one of them could have been dancing out a deep wailing grief just as easily as just having a good time.
Or even when people have been cruel to me, I still have no idea what’s going on in their hearts at the time; I just know that it’s almost never about me. The woman from Pilates class who gives me the stink-eye when I arrive for Nia…it could be that she hates her body so much she can’t imagine loving a body like mine. It could be that her mother died due to diabetes and she feels like her weight was a direct factor. It could be her high school bully was a big girl who taught her to fear large women. That won’t, of course, stop me from giving her the “Can I HELP you?” look, which usually earns an embarrassed retreat, but it does remind me that behind every person causing pain, there almost always is pain – a mountain of pain left to fester and rot until it stinks up everything around them.
You just never know what’s going on with someone – why they look the way they look, act the way they act. That’s not to excuse inconsiderate behavior by any means, but it does give me pause when I get ready to leap to judgment against someone. Just as they have no idea looking at me what I’ve been through, I have no idea what wounds they are nursing, what demons they’ve faced. You just never know.
There’s a quote that’s been on my mind since then, often attributed to Plato but actually traceable to the 1890s and a writer named Ian MacLaren:
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