Empathy > Judgement

One night, as I walked out of my house to attend a meeting, I noticed a person coming down the sidewalk towards me.  Instinctively, I looked up and added a perfunctory, “how ya doing?”  What I quickly realized was this person was not doing well at all.  Extremely thin, with a distant stare, walking at a snail’s pace, this person appeared to be in a bad place.  However, I had a meeting to get to, so I continued on my way and got into my car to head out.

As I started to drive off, I couldn’t take my eyes off this person.  Feeling an overwhelming sense of sadness, I pulled over and continued to watch from the emotional safety of my car.  No one would fault me if I continued on with my day, but I also knew this was one of those moments that was testing all the personal development work I had done in my life.

The question was there, “had I become the person I wanted to be (more loving, caring, and empathetic towards myself and others), or was I still a façade of change (all talk, no action – let someone else help).  Deciding the moment called for me, I got out of my car and walked over.

I led with, “hi, I’m Dan.  Are you doing ok?”  No answer.

“I’m a neighbor of yours up the street.  Do you need any help?”  No answer.

“Do you want me to call an ambulance for you?”  Inaudible noise.

“I’m worried about you, is there anything I can do to help you?”  No answer.

“What’s your name?”  The person answered (I’m leaving out the name and gender for privacy).

“Do you want an ambulance?”  The person answered “No.”

The conversation continued with me trying to keep the interaction going and doing my best to evaluate what to do.  Over the course of the 10 minutes I spent with this person, they maybe said 8 or 9 words.  One of the few things I was able to understand is they were walking to see the ducks (I assumed at the city park nearby).

It was heartbreaking to be in this person’s presence as it was very clear they were not in a good state.  It was also apparent this person had encountered difficult physical issues in the past.

After clearly stating they did not want medical help, food, or further assistance, I decided that I couldn’t (or shouldn’t) impede them further and/or call 911 against their will.  I returned to my car, watching as my neighbor continued their very slow walk forward.  Driving away, I started to cry – both for the person and for others who are in a similar predicament.  I also worried that I had made the wrong decision about not calling medical providers.

Later, returning from my meeting, I drove by the pond, hoping to see the person, looking at the ducks as they wished.  However, it was dark, and no one was out.  I went to sleep that night feeling both grateful for my life and awful that there are people hurting as much as the one I experienced that day.

Do I deserve a Nobel Peace Prize for my actions?  No, but I am proud that I led with empathy versus judgement.  For me, this was a sign of progress.  The old Dan would have judged the hell out of this person.  I would have said and believed things like, “druggie,” “sicko,” “weirdo,” and “looney.”  I’d be lying if I told you those thoughts weren’t swirling around in my mind as I engaged with them.  For me, the difference is those “judgy” thoughts are frequently there, but I have a choice to make – believe the judgement or disregard the thoughts and lead with my heart.  On this day, my heart won.

I can only confidently speak about one person’s experience – mine, but disregarding judgement and leaning into empathy has been a game changer for my life.  In the voice of Yoda, “judgement leads to division, division leads to hatred, and hatred leads to the darkside.”  The less I judge, and/or listen to judgement, the more light has shown itself in my life.

Additionally, in looking at my judgements, what I’ve come to realize is these thoughts are nearly ALWAYS wrong.  Furthermore, my judgements are frequently used to divide, separate, and/or make me feel superior.  What good is that?  Do I really need an inflated ego to keep myself safe?  Do I really need to call someone “druggie” or “sicko” to make me feel good about my life?

What I have found is that by opening my heart and following a more empathetic path, the result is a more loving, caring, and accepting Dan (not only towards others, but to myself).  As a result, I ultimately believe that I am putting more love into (my) world and that I am happier for it.

Introducing more empathy into my life hasn’t negated all my worries and struggles. One thought that is frequently pestering my mind is, “am I doing enough to help?”  That is, help with the state of affairs we currently find ourselves in.  I catch myself thinking, I should be doing more because I am one of the lucky ones – white, male, from a good family, born in the United States, financially stable, no health problems, etc., etc.  The weight of the question can feel overwhelming at times.  Overwhelming, because how does one-person slow climate change, end tribalism, and feed the hungry while going about our day-to-day lives?

This might be self-pacifying, but on the day I showed genuine concern for a neighbor, I felt that I was doing enough to “help.”  It wasn’t so much that my care for another person ended a social ill, but it was a very teeny tiny step in the right direction.  On that day, in those moments, I acted as a version of myself that saw a person walking down the street not as “other” or an “enemy,” but as a brother or a sister.

What if I could do that all the time?  What would life be like then?  Now that’s a thought worth considering.


Author Bio: Dan started Fired and Free in 2017, to provide his “truth” after being fired as CEO of the company he started and led. After a diverse 17-year career in management consulting and entrepreneurship, Dan now leads 3Sixty Leadership, where he provides coaching and consulting to business owners, helping them to improve their leadership and company culture.

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