This time of year, as the holiday season approaches, it’s so easy to get wrapped up in our own little world. In all honesty, it’s easy to do this any time of year, but the months of November and December, especially so. By this I mean, it’s easy to get submersed in all the many things we need to do. The tasks, activities and purchases we must complete to make the holidays special, and as close to perfection as possible for those we love. The decorations, gifts, lights, nostalgic activities, the family gatherings, old movies we watch for the hundredth time….it can take all our focus.
While I love all “the things” that make the season festive, fun, and memorable, just as much as the next person, I was struck today as I left the store, by another thought.
I had run into Walmart, to grab just a few items that I needed. I headed toward self-checkout as my cart was not that full, and the line was shorter there. As I waited for the next open register, I saw a woman I recognized. I didn’t know her well but knew her enough to say hello and make small chat. I also know her enough to know that recently she lost someone very close to her. I watched her for a minute as she finished up, waiting to catch her eye so I could say hi. As I watched, I thought about the grief and loss she had been through and was no doubt still experiencing.
She finished and looked up, and quickly gave me a friendly greeting.
“Hi Molly,” she said.
I returned the hello. We made small talk for a minute or two about Thanksgiving being days away, and the business of the season. She told me to take care, giving me a smile that only somewhat covered the deep sadness she was feeling inside. I neglected to say anything about her recent loss.
As I checked out my items, I thought about her. “I should have said something,” I thought. It occurred to me that this would be her first Thanksgiving and Christmas without the person she had recently lost.
I left the store, making my way to my vehicle, still regretting my decision in that moment. God apparently had it on His agenda for me to express my condolences though, as He provided the perfect opportunity. As I approached my Jeep, there she way, directly across the parking lot aisle, loading her groceries into her SUV.
I wouldn’t be negligent this time.
I spoke her name and she instantly looked up. “I’m so sorry to hear of his passing,” I said. “I’m so sorry you are going through this.”
Her mouth turned upward just a bit, displaying yet again, another sad smile. By her body language, I could see that the grief was still weighing on her heavily.
“Thank you,” she said, her voice clearly quivering from the emotion she held within.
“It’s been so hard; my kids are really struggling.” She then went on to tell me she had lost not one, but three very close family members recently. “It’s just a really lonely season for me right now.”
Again, I don’t know this woman well at all. She would be an acquaintance, if that, but in that moment, empathy for her and her situation hit me deep within my core. I felt my eyes well up with tears behind my sunglasses. As I told her how sorry I was, I felt and heard my own words quiver. I wanted to get away, feeling silly for the emotion that was rising within me.
In an instant, my entire perspective had changed. I was no longer thinking of all the to-do’s for mine and my family’s holiday. All I saw was the grief written all over her face and imagined how she would experience this coming holiday season. I imagined her children, whom I don’t know at all, struggling and missing the people they had lost this year. I imagined the void they all would feel. Then I imagined the people I have personally lost over the years in my own family, and how the wound is always extra exposed this time of year. I completely empathized with her in this moment.
I said goodbye, saying what we all say in those moments, “I’ll keep you in my prayers.” She thanked me and we both left.
As I pulled away, the welled-up tears broke loose and began to stream down my face.
“Why am I crying? I don’t even really know this family…why am I so effected right now?”
I instantly remembered another time in the store about a year ago when I had seen a little old man wandering through the produce section. His face had looked like that of a lost boy, confused and sad, and I immediately knew, without doubt, just by how he looked, that he was a widower. I remember having the same feeling about him as I was having today. What was all this about? Why was I having these feelings of sorrow for people I did not even know?
And then I realized the answer.
I was deeply moved and even emotional from this encounter because even though the situation was different, I recognized the look on her face. I could read past the forced smile. It was pain she was trying to cover up, and in that moment, I felt hers and also was reminded of mine.
In this human experience we call life, we often view ourselves as separate…as “individuals”, but really, this is the farthest thing from the truth. The actual truth is that we are all connected…we all are essentially the same. Pain is pain and none of us escape it. My emotion in these moments over situations that had no bearing on my life whatsoever demonstrated this core truth.
As I drove, I thought more deeply about this. It occurred to me that outside of my own little world that consists of all “the holiday things that I need to get done”, a lot of people are hurting and suffering, and are simply trying to get through this time of year. Yes, God had wanted me to speak with her, but it hadn’t been for her, it had been for me. It had been to remind me to slow down and take notice of those around me, and perhaps so I could write this very blog.
We’re talking about empathy here. “The ability to understand or identify with another’s feelings or situation.”
I believe we are all guilty of getting too consumed by our own individual worlds and seeing ourselves separate from the people we pass by each day. The woman in the grocery store, the older man ordering ahead of us at the coffee shop, or the stranger we exchange glances with as we go into work. We see these people as outside of ourselves and our existence, but the truth of it is, we are all doing the essentially the same thing each day. Waking up, living our lives, experiencing joy and pain, and trying to do our best.
What’s the take-away? It’s this- aim to be more empathetically aware.
This Thanksgiving week, as we officially kick off the holidays, notice the people you pass by a little more. If you see someone you know (or don’t know that well) take time to say hello. Think outside yourself. Don’t get so consumed with the business that you pass by the hurting without even noticing. The holidays are fun and a time to look forward to, but for some, they are extremely difficult. Today at the store was a good reminder of that for me.
In short, we all need to have empathy and compassion. This means seeing the similarity of this human experience we all share. Yes, the holidays are a time to be with those we love and know, but they are also the perfect time to be more present and to raise our awareness to the well-being of those we encounter each day.
Yes, our world is extremely divided today. There are so many differences, but let the holidays be the time, we simply see people for what they are; human beings who may be struggling and who may be going through something. Empathy is a form of love, and it’s my belief this world needs more of it.