Why I’m changing the (wo)man in the mirror

Why I’m changing the (wo)man in the mirror

I want to live in a world full of deep and active empathy. A world in which we respect differences, seek to understand the perspective of others and act with kindness towards those we know and don’t. A world in which this empathy extends to those who don’t look or think like we do.

Why I’m changing now

I’ve thought and felt for a while that our world needs more empathy. I’ve read many articles about empathy as a critical business skill, the importance of developing empathy in children, how central empathy is to solid romantic relationships, etc. Over the summer, when asked what super-hero power I would choose, I didn’t want to be invisible or stop time; I wanted the power to magnify empathy, a super-hero we dubbed Magna Girl. At that time, I made no changes in my life.

A few years ago, I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Burkina Faso, West Africa and lived in a village that was almost completely Muslim. One day, a pharmacist asked me why a Christian religious leader (Terry Jones) was planning to burn thousands of Qurans. “Why does he hate us?” He asked me. “Does he even know us?” While I struggled to give a decent explanation, I appreciated that he asked me about the hate of one person, only holding that person responsible for his own actions, and not assuming that all Christians are hateful. Thinking back on this interaction, I dwell on how important it is to not attribute the actions of few to the hearts of billions and how important one-on-one conversations are to sharing perspectives and building empathy.

The actual turning point for beginning what I call my Adventures in Empathy was rooted in a recent Thanksgiving conversation around Syrian refugees, against the anti-Muslim political backdrop of State Governors proclaiming they reject Syrian refugees in their state.

The world felt so polarized and full of hate. The terrorism in Beirut, Paris and later San Bernardino, was fueled by hate, as was the terrorism against Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs and against black churches over the summer. Politicians now run on platforms of hate, fear, intolerance and bigotry; their rallying cries normalize hate and distrust, only deepening divisions. While hate isn’t new, the situation felt urgent, as if something irreversible could ignite at any moment.

All my concerns erupted and I lashed out against family members who echoed some of the Governors’ points of view. Later, my boyfriend pointed out how I didn’t have empathy in that conversation for those that I felt weren’t seeing the perspective of the refugees.

I felt so strongly that something needed to change, that I needed to do something. But what? I don’t have lots of free time. I could donate to organizations building empathy, but that didn’t feel like enough. Only donating felt like I was shirking my part in our collective responsibility to create the culture and world in which we live. That weekend, I took the advice from both Gandhi to "be the change" and Michael Jackson to "start with the (wo)man in the mirror", and began practicing more active empathy myself. The only thing I knew I could change was me.

What is Adventures in Empathy?

Starting each Monday, I’ve kicked off a new 7 day Adventure in Empathy where I do something daily to practice active empathy by learning about someone else’s life or by demonstrating empathy.

While the final impetus to start Adventures in Empathy was sparked by current events, my focus is much broader.

On learning days, I’ve had one-on-one conversations to build empathy, working to root myself in active listening and asking questions that wouldn’t be perceived as judgmental or confrontational. I’ve pushed myself to be more curious about strangers and have had more conversations with my Uber drivers or people I pass on the street.

AE day 11

I’ve asked more probing questions to people I know at a surface level and tried to understand how they experience the world. When I’m alone, I’ve challenged my own perspective by seeking out different news sources.

AE 12

On days I’ve focused on actively demonstrating empathy, I’ve done little things like sending a card or text to reach out to someone needing support, or leaving hand warmers for my mail carrier on a particularly cold day. To try to help these new habits and mindset stick, I’ve intentionally focused on actions that only take a few minutes or can be part of my normal day.

AE 26 - 2

I’ve been posting each day’s action on the Adventures in Empathy Facebook page. The posts are not intended as boastful solicitations of a pat on the back, but rather function as an accountability tool for me. For those following me, I hope to break up the polarized newsfeeds and thought processes, and hopefully start a different type of dialogue. Finally, I hope to demonstrate that active empathy can be an everyday part of our lives. It requires a mental and emotional commitment to change the way you engage with ideas and people; however, it doesn’t actually require a significant time commitment.

How I’m starting to change

Like any good adventure, I didn’t know where my Adventures in Empathy would take me, but I continue to embrace the journey. I’ve just finished my fourth 7 day Adventure in Empathy and I’ve started to notice some initial changes. I am more aware of opportunities to listen, show kindness and be a better version of myself. I also notice individual people a more in a crowd-- such as the woman who works at my metro stop or the men hanging out in the park by my house—and I ask myself more frequently what they may be thinking or feeling.

An unexpected side effect of focusing on empathy and how others may feel, is that when the world seems full of hate, I feel it more. It feels more personal and emotional, and not something I can be intellectually attuned to while emotionally numb to.

Overall, in the first month, some days my Adventures in Empathy were great and energizing! Other days I found myself scrambling at the end of the day for active empathy ideas. Developing a positive new behavior and mindset is never easy, but I’ll chalk that up to part of the adventure.

So what?

I want to live in a world full of deep and active empathy.

I have no misconceptions that I alone will create that world; this is a world that can only be created by a critical mass of us. At the same time, I am no longer willing to simply want that world without actively working for it. No longer willing to underestimate the part that I, and you, play in giving that world more life.

How to engage

If you are interested in following along, learning more, or developing your own empathy, check out and like the Adventures in Empathy Facebook page for ideas and resources.