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Empathy: For the greater good

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In the 1990s, while I was still reeling from a divorce of (previously unimaginable) pain, I was introduced to a friend of a friend to play tennis. We met at some courts near my office after work one afternoon. Will was tall, dashing and so athletic that he pretty much wiped the tennis court with me, although he was quite kind about it.

Later, as we enjoyed an adult beverage on the patio of a popular restaurant downtown after tennis, I learned that Will had been part of the U.S. four-man bobsled team that placed fourth at the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympic Games. A captain in the Air Force stationed at Hanscom Field in Massachusetts at the time, Will had been recruited to the USA-1 sled for his strength and speed.

Even as we chatted, however — and over the lively music that was piped outside to the patio — we both became aware of the table of four or five men sitting near us, to Will’s left and a bit behind him. They were expressing their displeasure through crude comments and thinly veiled threats. As these registered in my consciousness, I was shocked, but all I saw in Will was weary recognition and resignation. I was frightened and embarrassed by a situation I had never faced before.

You see, Will is black.

In a recent course at Lighthouse Writers Workshop — “Writing for the Greater Good,” led by celebrated Colorado author Helen Thorpe — we discussed how to convey the emotions of people in situations that we ourselves had never experienced to create empathy. As a Caucasian, I had certainly never experienced the kind of racial prejudice that Will had, as evidenced by his tired sighs and the studious way he tried to ignore the ignoramuses on that patio.

In my late 30s at the time of this incident, I was still pretty sheltered in my world view, having grown up in the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado, heading off to college at age 17, and marrying a few months after graduation. Watching Will’s face harden, I was deeply sorry for about what was happening. I learned — by watching Will — what prejudice felt like.

No matter that Will had risen to the rank of major in the Air Force, held a master’s degree in psychology from the University of Massachusetts, had been a track star in high school as well as college where he earned MVP honors in the North Central Conference for three years, and had represented the United States of America at the Olympic Games. To those people he was nothing more than a young black man with a beer they thought he shouldn’t be having with a young white woman.

One definition of empathy is the capacity to feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference – that is, the capacity to place ourselves in another’s position. And from empathy, then, comes understanding.

In class, we determined that portraying emotions we’ve never personally experienced required observing them in people who have.

And if I can use situations like Will’s to inject such emotion into my own writing, then I believe I will be writing for the greater good in a world that could use a little more empathy right now.

Andrea Doray is a writer who still loves tennis, having shed blood on some courts diving for those low volleys. Contact Andrea at a.doray@andreadoray.com.

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