Stepping out of the world I once knew as “normal”to embark on a journey to meet people “unlike” me from all 50 states has introduced me to a world of emotions.

One of the many that I’ve been processing now for quite some time is the deep well of all that is EMPATHY. I used to think I understood empathy, and now I know I didn’t. What I’m learning as a play catch up is this…

Empathy is not “I’m sorry.”

Empathy is not “I understand.” Because the truth is, I can’t.

What I’ve discovered so far, and I know I still have a long way to go, is that empathy is more than being a good listener, and its more than feeling sorry for someone.

Empathy flows from a deeper well. It opens up the realm of stepping, for a brief moment, out of my life and into the life of the person in front of me, plopping myself into their story and discovering the horror, the pain or the unspeakable joy that they feel as they share their most precious possession…their story.

Over the past 12 months, I’ve had the incredible gift of experiencing empathy through unexpected physical manifestations like the uncontrollable sobbing that flows out of feeling the loss of a child at the hands of outrageous injustice. I’ve had the chance to feel that explosion of hope ignited by a political decision like DACA that changed the entire landscape of a young man’s ability to dream about his future. I’ve waded through the waters of rage in the face of genocide, theft, and heritage lost. It’s shocking to feel something so deeply that you yourself never personally experienced. And yet you feel it. Empathy requires more than telling your story. It actually asks you to bear your soul.

This kind of exchange is not for the faint of heart.

Empathy is giving another person permission to change you. Not change your mind. Change you.

When my story and my life collide with the story of a person who is nothing like me, what we both stand to gain in that encounter is profound and beautiful change, like an eternal marker that we leave on one another that says, you were here and so was I. We met and then we parted having been shaped into something brand new.

Empathy is not about agreement. I’ve officially decided that agreement is cheap because it actually requires very little of us. Empathy, on the other hand, requires everything because it takes you on the hard path into the toughest places and says, “I’m willing to let my story change you and I’m willing to be changed by yours.”

This is the power of the journey we have embarked on this year. This is not about a blog or a social movement. This is very simply about how much more rich and beautiful our lives could be if we’d just allow them to collide in this spectacular, yet simple way.

It’s not rocket science and it only require a handful of ingredients, empathy being one. I believe we are a nation filled with people who carry the capacity for empathy. And I believe the time is now to begin to explore the ways our lives can collide in this way, and shape one another for good.

  • Dan Townsend says:

    Hello, I am interested in your efforts to understand “others”. Take a look at my blog: kilroy100.com, and let me know if it helps you on your quest.
    Your children, like children I work with in local schools, will live with the wreckage strewn by earlier generations seduced by tribunes of unearned affluence and short-term thinking.
    The task is daunting, best wishes, Dan Townsend, New Mexico USA

    • David Leaverton says:

      Thanks Dan. We will check out your blog! We really enjoyed our time in NM – such a beautiful state!

  • Stephanie Dunn says:

    “Empathy is giving another person permission to change you. Not change your mind. Change you.”
    This is the way to heal divisions. We need to stop believing that other people need to change and start letting ourselves be changed. I am inspired by your journey.
    I’m also very impressed with the quality of your writing. I have had doubts about the myths we’ve developed from Civil War history, but I hadn’t been able to sort them out in a meaningful way. Your post on the Emancipation Proclamation clarified my understanding. Thank you.

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