A Path to Empathy and Understanding, Part2

~Sharon Wilson

?Two weeks ago Cheryl invited us to look with fresh eyes and an open heart at the dreams and visions of others. This is not as easy as it sounds. It means focussing on another with openness and without judgement. It challenges us to rise above our certainties and allow ourselves to explore our vulnerabilities. So often it is described as ‘walking in another’s shoes’.

This reminded me of a serendipitous experience I had with my sister a few years ago while visiting the Maritime Museum in Roskilde, Denmark. As we neared the far side of one of the halls there was an open door. Thinking that the exhibit continued there we marched in.

Before us was a glass topped table of about six square meters with a computer joystick on one side. I decided to try it out when suddenly a voice from deep in the dark corner announced that this was NOT public space.

In a moment three young men emerged from behind banks of monitors. It turned out that they were all Ph.D. students in marine archeology working on projects at the museum. I apologized profusely for entering their space and interfering with their project.

To my surprise, after a huddled conversation, they invited my sister and I to test their prototype. That large table was supposed to represent the sea floor with sand, rocks and treasure. The joystick was to allow an interactive experience of doing the work of a marine archeologist. As we took turns moving sand to find hidden spoons, boot buckles and the like, I marvelled at how much fun this was and how easy.

One student began to explain in great detail the difficulty of working deep on the ocean floor in a deep-sea diving suit. He described the stiffness of the heavy gloves that made fine motor movements nearly impossible.

Thinking about this, I pondered out loud, “This would be better if I was wearing deep sea diver’s gloves”. With that, one of the men rushed to his computer and a steady tap, tap, tap followed.

My sister got an idea: “It would be even better if you could wear a deep sea diver’s helmet while you’re searching”. Another wave of tapping erupted. Finally, we agreed that the process worked best for the participant if at least some of what we uncovered was shiny and precious.

What happened in that distant museum workshop was a vivid example of building empathy. Those three young men yearned for others to share their excitement for underwater exploration.

Within the limitations of the display they were creating, we found ways to heighten our awareness of their work: the challenges of looking through a thick mask and fumbling with heavy gloves, the euphoria of discovering a treasure! The five of us parted feeling we had accomplished something magical and totally unexpected.

As we watch news reports of anti-racism protests in the USA, freedom marches in Belarus and Hong Kong and a lone orthodox Jewish man in London protesting for the rights of Uighur Muslims in front of the Chinese embassy, the demand for us to be people of understanding and empathy intensifies.

Protest is not a fashion statement. It is not about going along with the crowd. Understanding and empathy means that we are prepared to go deep into the concerns of another. We listen to their stories and their passions, their hurts and successes, their goals and dreams. We need to reflect on the obstacles they face that do not exist for us for a whole host of reasons. We learn of life that is beyond our personal experience.

More than anything, empathy is the honest, sincere investment of our lives into that of another. We commit to stand side by side even in the danger.
That brief exchange in a Scandinavian museum was a reminder that we should never stop learning. I learned so much in that brief encounter about those three young men and their passionate pursuit of marine archeology. My sister and I got to ‘walk in their shoes’ and the result was an unforgettable, transformative experience. Such encounters are holy. Let your curiosity and openness give free rein to the Spirit.