Michael Ventura on Empathy

4 years ago by

In the upcoming weeks we’re going to be sharing some thoughts and essays from some of our favorite thinkers about life during Covid-19. First up is the wonderful Michael Ventura who is here to talk about the impact of Covid-19 on society’s collective empathy…

What I See

As I walked into the market, I moved right, giving ample space to the woman leaving with her two arms full of groceries. As she drew closer, I gave a neighborly smile, which felt unrequited. She wasn’t being ungracious. In fact, she may have smiled back, but as humans we are trained to understand the world through our primary sense of sight, and as such, I was at a newfound disadvantage. She, ensconced in face mask and sunglasses, and I, equally mask-obscured, had lost our ability to visually communicate. Did she see the smile in my squinting eyes? Was my acknowledgement reciprocated behind her PPE? Do these small gestures mean as much to others as they do to me? This is ordinary life in the time of Covid-19.

Today is day 45 under the self-enforced terms of my quarantine. I am generally keeping my distance. I’m wearing protective gear as needed. I’m scrubbing my hands like a surgeon when I come home from an errand and I’m, for the most part, doing the best I can to keep myself, my family, and those I interact with, safe.

But my quarantine is not yours. This is what we so often forget in these times of self preservation. What is right for me and my personal circumstances is not the same as what might be right for you and yours.

In the writer John Koenig’s Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, he describes this experience as sonder. He tells us it is;

“…the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.”

This interior experience we are all having is certainly complex. And unique. And hard to fathom at scale because heretofore we have never as a human race experienced such a widespread pandemic-induced isolation while also being so completely “connected.” Zoom calls and Hangouts and House Parties and good ol’ fashioned phone calls and text messages. WhatsApp groups, and Instagram Lives, and for those of you office workers trying to make hay in these uncertain times, a litany of Microsoft Teams and BlueJeans and WebEx-es abound. So many different ways to share our experience but I still feel so distant. So isolated. Alone.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m holed up in my apartment in Manhattan that I’ve called home for a long while alongside my better half and two high EQ dogs. If I have to endure a pandemic, these three are my ride or dies. But it’s still lonely.

A few years ago I wrote a book about empathy. More specifically, how to apply empathy to our lives to make it a more readily applicable skill at work and at home. When the pandemic started I got tons of messages from people saying “what a time to be an empathy expert – you have to tell us what you think we should do.”

I don’t know what you should do.

I barely know what I should do.

But I do know how empathy starts. It starts with listening.

So that’s what I’m doing. I didn’t rush out and share my perspective, because I’m still discovering what it is. I’m watching. I’m asking questions. I’m witnessing my friends and neighbors go through all manner of emotions as they shutter their businesses, cling to loved ones who are working or ailing on the front lines of our hospital rooms, and struggling to fill their days with ways to help the hours go by.

On the other hand, some are loving their newfound freedom. They are learning new languages and joining virtual dance parties and baking – my god the baking. There is actually an “active yeast” shortage in a few cities. A yeast shortage.

Everyone’s experience is different.

So what am I supposed to say to you? How is empathy going to help in a time when none of us know what to do and how to feel? I don’t know if I have any answers that will help, but here’s what I’m starting to see and sense as I listen to the world around me.

Physically distance but socially embrace. In the beginning of this crisis we were all told to “socially distance” ourselves. Semantically, I disagree. We need to keep a safe physical distance but let’s also remember that our solidarity and our relationships can persevere without contact. Don’t let proximity stand in the way of presence. Be a part of the lives of those you care about. And let them do the same for you.

Love whomever you can love. This might be your partner. It might be your roommate or your cat(s). It might be the person you’ve neglected to love that lives 2,000 miles away but the quarantine has helped to reconnect. It might be yourself. Whoever it is, find that person and love the hell out of them. It feels good and it helps to remind you what’s worth living for in this mixed up world.

Take the next right action. In a time and space where things are changing so rapidly and the unprecedented abounds, it’s easy to get lost in the long term and the unknown. What is the thing you can do right now to feel the way you want to feel? Do you need to cry? To journal? To howl at the moon or dance until dawn? To call an old friend? To make a new one? Do it. Small wins matter and following your intuition toward the next step in feeling well is a step worth taking.

And lastly, remember. Remember that all is not lost. While we may never return to what once was, perhaps it will be in the newness of the world after the quarantine where we find something we didn’t know we were seeking. It may be some time until we can sit in a crowded bistro elbow to elbow with strangers or laugh in the darkness of a movie theater or find ourselves rattling around on a crowded subway on our way to our individual lives’ next stop, but you can find comfort in knowing that, eventually, we will be together again. In the meantime, let’s remember what those seemingly inconsequential moments of our shared humanity were and treasure them as we await their return.

Because they will return. And we will have them, and share them, and know their incalculable worth, different though they may be from the changes we are undergoing. And they will be seen, unencumbered by the masks we once wore.


Michael is the author of Applied Empathy, Founder and CEO of Sub Rosa, and a practitioner at Corvus Medicine.

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  • Linda Hartmann May, 1 2020, 7:27 / Reply

    As a teacher of young children, I can see, hear, and feel some of them crumbling. I just want to reach out and hug each and every one of them. So, today, I started with a thank you email to my kids and their parents. Thank you for being you, for working so hard, for participating in our daily video classes, and for being present.
    We will all be different because of and in spite of this experience. But, we will persevere together.

  • Karen May, 1 2020, 8:24 / Reply

    Thank you. This was just what I needed to read today. Beautifully said as it is reassuring that we are all in this together but each having our own experience.

  • Séverine MATAS May, 2 2020, 8:16 / Reply

    je vous suis depuis plusieurs années mais il n’est plus possible d’avoir la traduction en français depuis un moment. Avez-vous une solution ? C’est … frustrant … :)

  • Jessica May, 2 2020, 9:28 / Reply

    I love how “do the next right thing” has trickled out of the Frozen 2 universe and populated our thinking. Having seen that movie more times than I care to count in the last month+ (4 year old!) I now see it everywhere in a way I didn’t before.

  • Alice R May, 3 2020, 3:46 / Reply

    John Koenig’s quote is beautiful. Thank you !

  • Sharon May, 3 2020, 7:49 / Reply

    This was a wonderful piece to read today. I am lucky…retired, steady income, living with my husband, healthy, no young children to educate and entertain. But, I am constantly on the edge of tears, even though I am lucky in all of those ways. Your writing puts things in perspective, and brings comfort. Thank you.

  • Jorge Alexandre Teixeira May, 4 2020, 7:20 / Reply

    Well Done and Said, Mr Michael Ventura !!! I Trully enjoyed your words, it felt good ! You’re like …i don’t known… the brown-eyed Father Jonh Misty of Empathy !!!

    Take Care, m’a Man !!!

  • Beautifully written.

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