Empathy + Timing

I used to observe subway commuters with great veneration. Despite the struggle that strained everyone’s face, I felt as though we were all connected.

No matter how tough of a day I had at work, putting my head up to see those sullen, miserable faces, made me feel like I wasn’t the only one. That I was part of something - that we were all on the same team. 

I would sometimes catch the eye of a complete stranger and nod in acknowledgment, as if to say “Yeah, man. I know”.  

How beautiful is it that we could all connect on our hardships without making race, creed, or background be the focal point of conversation. 

While I still think it’s great for such a hodgepodge mixture of humans to co-exist, today, I feel differently.

I still see the same row of unhappy faces lined up side by side, but this time, without camaraderie. Without the ties that bind us. We’re no longer part of the same team. Or perhaps, I’m no longer part of their team. 

A year ago, I lost a very dear friend for reasons that were entirely mine to blame. She always felt inclined to open up to me, and share her heart ache. Which I was quite dismissive of. “Life is too short. Why don’t we connect on the good times spent rather than the grief of the past” I thought.

After all, trauma bonding only works if it’s mutually reciprocated. 

But in hindsight, I also realize how improper it was of me to silence her pain. I was one of the only people in her life she felt she could open to, and I denied her every opportunity. The same way that the subway riders are denying me now.

Maybe I had it wrong to begin with. The camaraderie I once felt in the metro was just a figment of my imagination - an overreaching attempt to connect to others. But even if that was true, there is always another person, just know it, just like me, at the very end of that subway cart, feeling the same exact way as you do. 

Sometimes empathy is all about timing - depending on how big, or small you stand in the current moment. But no matter how big you are, never close yourself to those who feel small. There is no telling when you might switch roles. 

(Originally published April 17, 2018)