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Empathy: A triumph over stereotypes

Brace yourself, if you have ever met that annoyingly optimistic sounding person, I am about to risk reminding you of him/her. But it won't be in vain. I have a point to make.

I have, like you, met those people with a seemingly unshakable belief in the good of all occurrences. No war too bloody, no capitalist too greedy, no child devastatingly left needy to sway their "it all happens for a reason and eventually a good one'' attitudes otherwise. It's funny how most of those encounters go for me. Although they approach my malice with the intent to transform it into the dawn of hopeful optimism, (or it could very well be just an attempt to announce to me and assert to themselves their transcendence into a higher form of existence but I prefer to always assume the former is the case) they almost always leave me worse.

Worse because I am now judging another human on top of continuing to wallow in what I am sure caused my discomfort in the first place.

"Easy for you to say"

"you can never understand what I am going through"

"everything happens for a good reason? Excuse me? Care to offer some examples?"

"Good for you, leave me and my woes alone"

It almost never works and it makes me wonder why. Maybe they overdo it? Maybe all I needed was a smile and a hug or a random act of, forget kindness, just simple acknowledgement of the space I occupy as a human being?

I was in court the other day, to try and reschedule a traffic case I had coming up. Went into the traffic help center and pressed the interactive monitor to get a ticket to be served.


The small screen announcing the ticket numbers currently being served notified me that 3 customers were ahead of me. I sat down and pulled out my book. Settling in.

I was in no hurry, having been done with my work day as a court interpreter. I know I should know better than speeding on the highway when court dealings, traffic and much more, are a daily experience for me. Go ahead and judge, I did exactly that when a young woman entered the waiting area.

African American, late twenties was my guess. One could easily tell she was in no way in a good mood. Not even a neutral one. My immediate thought?

'Keep your smile and "hey how are you" to yourself or get your dignity publicly handed to you'

She printed herself a ticket and sat down some chairs away from me. The service announcement, that had been noticeably stagnant in the F department continued to echo.

"Now serving 'A112' at window number..."

"Now serving 'E130' at window number ..."

"Now serving 'A113' at window number..."

The lady glanced at the screen, then at her ticket, then back at the screen and blurted out loud "Are they fucking calling F numbers? What the fuck?!"

I immediately looked away, congratulating myself for having boxed her right.

'Belligerent black woman alert' I thought.

'With a possibility of a lack of manners in the forecast'.

I scanned the room to see if anyone else would agree with my judgement. Of course non-verbally! I wasn't about to volunteer to be a victim of her seeming discourtesy. I wasn't wrong, I met eyes with folks whose faces had frozen somewhere in between an eye roll and a judgmental smirk.

Then it hit me!

Who knows what burdens this woman carries? Who's walked in her shoes? Don't we all have a whole spectrum of habitualized reactions to adversities? Who is to say that the way I react to dips in my life which is mainly through retreating back into my shell of depression until I have the guts to face them, is better than the way this woman has internalized her bad day and happens to be lashing out as a result of it?

This woman could have just lost a custody battle on the third floor and had to come downstairs to pay a traffic fine she can't afford, on a car that is now repossessed by a lender. You know, some days/ weeks/ months/ years just simply suck. Living in a world where we all seem to be running our own races, too busy to notice and too selfish to care about others whose races are also full of hurdles.

We also make the mistake of thinking we have it worse than others and try and prove that. I have personally done that. I have not yet lost a loved one who's death I had to grieve as an adult, never suffered physical trauma nor have I had a major illness to deal with. But you know what? I know suffering. I have grieved every shame I've ever felt, every friend I willingly or otherwise had to lose, every failure that at the time seemed fatal, pretty much every breakup, a divorce, you name it!

Yes, I am also one of those people who respond to your 'why me' with a seemingly cold but sobering truth of 'why not you?'. So let's not compare our scars, pain isn't going anywhere and is only as real as how deeply it's felt. Loss is a normal occurrence that's only as excruciating as one happens to suffer it. Any version of discomfort is a shared experience wen should all allow ourselves to relate to in one another.

Something I couldn't explain connected me to this woman whose shoes I had never walked in but I was nevertheless judging a few minutes prior. Although she continued to mumble and restlessly act out, I couldn't help but be filled with empathy towards this stranger.

Regardless of my sudden epiphany, the very last thing I was going to do was approach her with a hidden agenda of preaching positivity or on the wisdom of a supernatural being who's in charge, even approaching her was still at the top my list of discomforts at the time. All I found myself yearning to do was smile at her and somehow let her know that I acknowledged her. That the space she occupied as a human, however unattractive her attitude towards whatever was going on with her, mattered. That she did not need acceptance nor required an approval on how she ached in response to whatever pain she dealt with.

Taking my pretty smile alone didn't seem enough. I worried that I would look rather insane so I decided to take a little bit more than that. Unsure about how she would treat me, I took my smile and my ticket to her and said

"I don't mind waiting, you can have my turn"

It took her a second to process what I was saying I think, she was mentally somewhere else and a stranger standing there with a grin took a second to sink in.

And then it happened, a faint smile broke on a face that looked scary and uninviting a few seconds ago.

She took the ticket and thanked me for it, handed me a ticket with F122 printed on it.

I sat back into my chair convinced that if heaven existed, how I was feeling had to be it. Then the voice came, almost as if the universe nodded in agreement.

"Now serving F118"

Would you challenge a stereotypical judgement with simple empathy today? With that coworker, with that person on the news, with the opposite gender, with a darker or lighter skin color, with a teenager pushing your buttons, with a friend disguised a a foe. Try it, our world needs it!

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