What I can tell you with conviction is that I learned a lot through observation – and, so can you! It doesn’t require a massive amount of energy; the only thing you need is to be aware, to be present and then, watch and learn. This way, I have come to understand so many behavioural patterns over the years. In the process, I also unravelled the importance of ‘empathy’, one of the concepts I have always been interested in as I discovered that by mastering this virtue you can elevate your quality of life and bring about a different standard for yourself and others. If you truly want to experience life to the fullest, I recommend zooming in on your empathy levels.
Let’s have a look what ‘empathy’ actually is, as this concept is often confused with sympathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and sense what another person is going through within their world view; in simple terms: being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and seeing the circumstances through their eyes. This involves understanding the person’s behaviour, the ability to sense how they might feel in the given situation and having the intelligence to take action and offer help.
I will share with you three encounters from my life that have made quite an impact on me and when looking through my empathetic lens have taught me values lessons.
When I moved to Japan, I was assigned a small apartment and apparently mine was much larger than most condos in the city according to Mella, my neighbour. She was also an expat, I found out, who had been living in Japan for four years. When she invited me in for tea, she said: ‘welcome to my castle’. Rarely had I seen such hospitality from a person I had just met. Later on she told me that living here was a dream come true. She was originally from the Philippines. By age four her mother could no longer look after her and left her with a guardian, who made her work on a land fill, collecting coke cans and PET bottles all day in the scorching sun. In exchange she received $1.75US. This would buy her one meal a day and shelter at night. I was in utter shock! But this was not the only story she told me, there were many more. By age sixteen, she escaped to Manilla and started working in a bar. ‘That was an improvement’, she said, ‘and there I met my husband, Charles. I was just the lucky one, you know. Many girls never get away.’ For us growing up in the West this is quite a story. I admired Mella for being so upfront and I realised how blessed I was for being born in a first world country.
Later on while working in Japan, I met Yukako, a 32-year old driven young lady who had lived in the USA for a few years and spoke fluent English, so we became friends. Over our daily lunches, she told me many things about her life and about her hopes and dreams for the future. Every evening I dropped her off at her apartment as it was on my way home. One night just before she got out of the car, she said: ’I have to confess something.’ I was surprised. What could she possible have to reveal? ‘Did you know, I don’t live here for the last nine months?’ she said. Now I was confused… Apparently, she had left her husband about nine months ago and did not want to tell me this ‘small detail’ as she feared I would have judged her. Every night when I dropped her off, she smiled and waited for me to drive off to then take the subway two stops further to go to the small studio room where she lived on her own. I could see her heart pounding in her chest when she told me. I smiled and said: ‘who am I to judge you? Everyone has their story and what happened between you and your husband is no ones business.’ She explained that In Japan it is better to keep these things hidden. Again, I realised that I was lucky I did not have to hide anything. Imagine the weight one carries with them from living two different truths.
During my aviation days, a Belgian friend of mine lived in Harare and had invited me to come to visit for a couple of weeks. I was excited as safaris and wild water rafting were most definitely on my bucket list. Before my trip, I decided to clean out my wardrobe and take all my unwanted clothes for the locals. Upon arrival, I was greeted by my friend’s loyal housekeeper, Otillia. Not only did she have the happiest face, biggest smile and whitest teeth I had ever seen but, she was an excellent chef and looked after us as if we were her family. After a few days, I handed her my old clothes. She was ecstatic and cried from happiness. That evening, it was 28C outside, we saw Otillia leave her studio wearing a woollen Armani sweater and long black pants, a gorgeous winter outfit in summer. She waved to us as she paraded by and we clapped…’ I feel like a queen!’ she said. It made my day to see her so happy wearing my hand-me-down outfit.
I will never forget these moments when people shared with me their most vulnerable feelings and it humbles me to be seen as their confidant. At the same time, it doesn’t take much to make someone happy or to simply be a listening ear and it I can honestly say that it is an amazing feeling to see another happy human! Being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes is a unique ability that will help you understand how someone feels and how you can best accommodate them. It will assist you to communicate more openly, and moreover highlight that there is so much to be grateful for; and most impotently, by applying empathy in your daily life, you will learn a lot about who you really are.
I dare you to give it a try!