As we head into the end of this decade and into the beginning of the next, I can’t help but think about choices. Earlier this week I chose to participate in an hour of mindfulness with a support group for people struggling with mental health issues. I chose the theme of compassion for the session and we talked together about what it means to be with the suffering and joy of others. We talked about understanding the human condition and how similar our desires and emotions are to those of others. Empathy takes compassion a step further – not only recognizing our shared humanity, but also identifying what it may be like to be in another’s place. In The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World, Jamil Zaki cites studies that find that empathy has decreased dramatically over the past few decades and observes that, “These days, the rules that encourage empathy are being broken. More than ever, humans are urban, isolated, and anonymous to each other. We meet irregularly, often in online spaces that privilege outrage and leave cruelty unpunished.” Meanwhile, empathy benefits both the giver and the receiver profoundly by increasing happiness and well-being and improving our social conditions. While the statistics indicate we are moving away from empathy, he asserts that empathy can be both learned and strengthened through practices such as loving-kindness meditation, cultivating friendships, and understanding stories from alternative perspectives. Perhaps, like so many things, empathy is a choice.
I’d like to share a story about choosing, that reminded me of how we may choose to choose. This past summer we traveled back to Austria and met up with friends who we had hastily said goodbye to in the rush of moving back to the U.S. eight months before. Despite the long stretch of months and the distance that created a gap between my son and his best friend, they reconnected through play as they would have on any afternoon after school just a year before. They both had birthdays in June and with the chance to celebrate together, we proposed that we would take the boys to a shop in town to choose birthday gifts from each other. At the shop, my son was overwhelmed by the toys and choices – meanwhile his friend quickly selected a number of new cars, keen to add them to his collection. Before we knew it, the shopkeepers were ushering us out, just before closing time, keen to enjoy a warm summer evening themselves. I encouraged my son to delay the purchase until he was sure about what he wanted, rather than choose just to choose. He was disappointed, but agreed, and we biked back home. That evening he scrolled through some options on the computer and found exactly what he wanted. He was elated and confidently sent his friend’s mom a text message to let her know. The next morning, his eyes sleepy, sitting next to me at the table with a bowl of cereal, he asked me, “Did you like my choose?” I paused a moment before understanding his words, and then I reflected back to him – that he had accepted a moment of disappointment, that he had selected something that he felt sure about, and that he had made his choice, not only without haste, but rather with the excitement and joy that should line all of our choices. I realized in my own response, that choices don’t have to be burdens, they are also opportunities for possibility. We have so many opportunities to choose. What do you choose?
I’d love to hear from you. And, in case you are interested in practicing a loving kindness meditation, I have recorded one for you below.
Loving Kindness Meditation: