Courtesy is empathy in action

By Christin Giblin, We're All In This Together

We’re all in this together

By Christen Giblin

Special to the Sentinel-Tribune

I was navigating Main Street at the four corners when I was vividly reminded of how important courtesy is, and how closely it relates to empathy.

The “walk” sign clearly indicated it was my turn to cross the busy intersection when a car turned right from Wooster onto Main alarmingly close to me. I had to pause and let the driver go by, or else be hit.

The young lady driving was obeying the law — just barely — but her behavior was nonetheless unsafe, not to mention uncourteous. She either failed to notice me, or to care that I was in her way. Pausing for this pedestrian would have been the courteous thing to do. It would have required her to pay attention to someone other than herself; in other words, to display empathy.

How do we define courtesy? Manners are not just about saying “please” and “thank you” (though that is important). Politeness goes way beyond which fork to use at a formal dinner. No, courtesy is about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. In other words, courtesy requires empathy. Doesn’t it sometimes feel that both are in short supply these days?

A daily walker, I’ve had several close calls crossing our busy downtown streets over the years. Are cell phones to blame for distracting drivers? Or are we all simply in such a hurry to complete our errands — so intent on what we have to do — that we fail to notice the people we encounter on our way? We are so forward focused that we lose our peripheral vision; the bigger picture.

The bigger picture, of course, involves other people. It’s so easy to get caught up in our own daily struggles that it’s easy to forget others are fighting battles as well. Your day’s troubles pale in comparison to those of your friend who’s just lost her mother. Keeping perspective helps us maintain empathy. You can always find someone whose battles are bigger than yours.

Or maybe their battles are similar, though they may not appear so. It can be hard to imagine the predicament of someone in a distant country who is facing starvation. But using our imagination (another element of empathy) allows us to feel maybe a fraction of what they are feeling. Realizing you have the same needs as those far away can bring their crisis closer. Don’t we all want to provide for our families? Can you picture not being able to feed your children?

Empathy grows when we realize those in the greatest need have a lot in common with us, no matter how secure we think we are. Lose your job and your ability to cover rent or your mortgage, and homelessness looms frighteningly close. Our lives exist in a delicate balance. No one is invulnerable.

I’m one of many volunteers at my parish’s food pantry. The dedication of my fellow volunteers encourages me. What discourages me, though, are the comments I sometimes hear. “Do those people really need food? Do you ask for proof of income from these people coming to your door? What if they are drug users or just too lazy to work?”

Comments like these show that the troubles of others, including hunger, fail to register with some. They reflect an absence of not only of courtesy, but also of empathy. Discounting the true needs of our fellow residents is like swerving out into traffic in front of a pedestrian. Sometimes we just don’t see someone because they don’t matter to us. We fail to put ourselves in the position of the person crossing the street or the hungry individual knocking at the food pantry door.

When you treat someone with courtesy you recognize the humanity we all have in common. The poor can be invisible. The needs of our fellow humans can be easy to ignore. But if we want to have a healthy community, we need realize we are all human, and can all experience need.

Showing courtesy — even if it’s just a kind word to someone waiting on you at a restaurant — manifests empathy. Courtesy teaches empathy. Courtesy is empathy in action. Embracing it makes our world a little kinder.