“I think we all have empathy. We may not have enough courage to display it.” ~ Maya Angelou
Any outlaw is daily tempted to cultivate anger and aggression towards the imposed order of authority that permeates the life around them. From bosses to spouses, employers and lawyers, the strongest weapon that an outlaw has in his or her arsenal is empathy.
I employ the following tool in my everyday life when my moment to moment mindfulness practice is threatened from within. Specifically, every time I see a “photo radar van in use ahead” sign on the side of the road.
Instinctively, my hand will go to my hip, searching for something sharp to slash a hole in their tire while they’re busy taking their photos. I sometimes even slow down to look for a good place to pull over before I catch myself…
To use empathy as an effective tool, I take a second to imagine the man in the van.
Even in a not-so-fantastic scenario, he is likely one of two people:
1—Someone who has always wanted to be a cop and just couldn’t quite make the cut to walk a beat.
2—An unqualified and unlucky person who literally couldn’t get any other job on this planet.
Unlike sympathy, empathy has the power to add positive emotion to an alluringly negative interaction, to negate or soften its influence and impact if only on ourselves.
I usually go with story number 1. Incidentally, this is the same story I leverage to cultivate empathy for meter-mades and all manner of malignant human-tumors on two feet by imagining the defeat and disappointment this piece of human waste must already feel for themselves. This is not a job they are proud of doing. This is a job that confines them in the back of a van, policing their fellow human beings as they rush around late to work or worse.
This is a person who likely hates their life…or should.
In this story, if I were to slash this person’s tires—a delusional attempt at settling some small score against “the system”—who really pays the price? This poor pathetic bastard in the van is going to have to waddle out and change that tire and then they’re going to have to explain to their boss just “what the hell happened?!” while they were sitting on their fat asses, to defensively justify why it is that they can’t seem to perform this one ignoble task without cocking it all up.
The system never suffers. Never.
Aiming the piercing arrow of our empathy at the people in these types of situations shows us that when we lash out we hurt a human being. In this example a particularly powerless one at that. In the more mindful, deliberately empathetic version of this exchange I’d be no better than bully.
Unlike sympathy, empathy contains an element of service.
Not so much a “feeling sorry for someone,” but acting towards them as if you’re feeling sorry on behalf of them. In other words, if you happened to be one of these big hearted but definitely dumb-ass dudes in the vans reduced to this lowly existence, how would you want people to treat you?
Even if the small self doesn’t avail itself of the full potential of this weapon right away, you will likely create enough space in the attempt to allow for a more peaceful and compassionate resolution to your challenging interaction. Slowing down to write a new story and buying just enough time to get by the van, to let go a measure of the reaction.
Identify one person in your life (boss, spouse, lover, coworker, etc.) that you could utilize this weapon of empathy with.
Reframe your story of them so that it now inspires empathy in you. It might help to cast them as the main character in the narrative.
The next time you see them, challenge yourself to act as if this alternate story is actually true.
Explore any reactions/results of your experiment.
Put to use again and again a tool has the power to become a practice—a weapon in the fight for our minds. But a hammer has never built a house. In order to carve out and craft a new way of being around frustrating interactions, one must wield the weapons in their arsenal again and again.
Everyone’s path may be unique, but the tools that are required are not.
Empathy is any Outlaw’s universal weapon against suffering.
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Apprentice Editor: Jessica Sandhu/ Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photos: elephant journal archives