free empathy

IMG_2031 - Version 2Perhaps it was his eyes:  the kindness there, the depth of his gaze.  Or maybe it was the quality of his listening, the way he seemed to hear with his whole body, leaning in to catch every word.   His lined face held no judgment, no impatience or tension or hint of boredom.  Nothing but love.  Waves of people surged by on the busy sidewalk, laughing and chatting, but his attention never wavered from the young woman who sat across the table from him, pouring out her tale.  I’m pretty he sure he didn’t even notice me when I paused, and then hesitated before snapping my photo, uncertain about intruding on this very public and yet strangely intimate exchange.

Home at last from two weeks on the west coast, I find myself  still thinking abut this man who sits at a card table on the bustling, hippest street in Santa Cruz and  open-heartedly gives himself away.

“Free Empathy” his sign says.  And, indeed, there is not so much as a cup or a hat or a money box in sight, no way for anyone to pay for his compassion even if they wanted to.

Free empathy.  I wonder if there is any greater gift, any exchange between two people, that could be more valuable than this?

Free empathy.  Nothing less than an offer of refuge, of rest, of acceptance: you are safe here, and you are ok, just as you are.

Free empathy.  A promise to bear loving witness to another’s struggle.

Free empathy.  A reminder that we won’t save the world with big gestures or grand schemes, but by becoming better listeners.  By asking how someone else is doing, and then taking time enough to put ourselves in their shoes, to see the world through their eyes.

Free empathy.  One precious natural resource that is endlessly renewable.

for my reflections & inspiration

your comments

  1. You were practically in my backyard when you were in Santa Cruz. I knew you were in the LA area but not Northern CA. Did I miss you giving a reading in Santa Cruz??

    Next time, I hope you’ll come to Half Moon Bay. We have 3 bookstores.

  2. Lovely. This reminds me, actually, of my experience observing Marina Abramovic at the MOMA in New York – there was something holy, something real, something intense passing between the two people who sat in silence across from each other. xoxo

  3. Gorgeous. (Now off to seek out some free empathy of my own as I lament the fact that I no longer live in Concord, Mass. and so will miss having the chance to meet you in person this weekend.) xo

  4. Oh Katrina! I was in Santa Cruz Feb 10-17, and I can only assume the hippest street you’re referring to is Pacific Ave. Perhaps I passed you and didn’t even know my favorite author was a few paces away! Sad to have missed you but happy to know you enjoyed my hometown:)

  5. Oh wow, that is so cool. I’m kind of a cynic sometimes – I think I would have assumed he was a con artist of some sort. Then again, he looks awfully engaged and genuine in that photo.

    I have to wonder, though…who stops at the “Free Empathy” table? I’m a reserved New Englander at heart…I think I’d lurk in the shadows watching, but wouldn’t dare step up to the table myself.

    {Amherst – my old stomping grounds! I am a UMASS grad. Too bad I live in Nebraska now, or I’d be in that audience in a heartbeat).

  6. Oh I just miss California so much. Thank you for this reminder that empathy is everywhere – even in ourselves for ourselves. What a beautiful reminder to simply listen and try to imagine what it might be like.

  7. Wow, this is such a powerful idea. Thank you so much for sharing his work and what should be all of our work. This is really lovely.

  8. Ironically, I am currently reading the book The Power of Empathy – A Practical Guide to Creating Intimacy, Self-Understanding and Lasting Love. It is one of the best books I have ever read..and has made me clearly see how empathy can help you realize your potential to be more honest, humble accepting, tolerant, grateful, hopeful and forgiving.
    Thank you Katrina, for sharing this and reminding us of the importance that TRUE empathy will bring to all of our relationships.

  9. Empathy- there was a great Star Trek episode about an empath who took on the physical and mental wounds of those she touched, absorbing them and eliminating them. As a kid watching this, I found it very powerful. I am afraid that empathy is a trait that our culture has somehow lost in our “in your face”, narcissistic society. It was refreshing to read your post. I have to remember to listen harder and not try to “fix things” when someone needs me to unload on.Just listen…and breathe.

    I’ll be seeing you in Troy next week! I am the cellist of the Beethoven 7 post. That concert happened in the Troy Music Hall which is walking distance from where you and Margaret will be speaking. See you there!

  10. I love this. What a gift we can give to others. Thanks for sharing. I am currently reading Mitten Strings for God for the third time. I have dog-eared, highlighted and taken so many notes, the book has filled my soul. I recently started a website where I am chronicling a 12 month mindful journey. This month I am covering the topic of parenting and this book has come up multiple times for discussion. Even next month when I cover simplicity I know I will be referencing your insightful words. I’m happy to know you have a blog and look forward to reading through past posts.
    Thank you for your words and wisdom!
    Meg Magnusson

  11. Your books always seem to mirror exactly what is happening in my life, and come into my life just when I need them. With the Gift of an Ordinary Day, I was also preparing for my oldest to go away to school, while my youngest struggled with a learning disability. Now, with Magical Journey, I feel adrift having recently turned 50 and experiencing so many of the same emotions you wrote about. Searching and not knowing what is next, I picked up your book not knowing what it was going to be about, while I took a weekend away by myself. Wow. You seem to understand everything I am feeling. And now, I’m turning to some of the other books that you referenced (like Lindbergh and Anderson), on my own exploratory journey of the next stage. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I now know that I will find a path ….

  12. What a marvelous picture and story. Thank you.

  13. My sign says Here 2 Hear – Empathic Listening, and it’s how I show up, sometimes with the Connection Action Project at an empathic listening post, sometimes alone in a crowd at an Occupy event, City Council meeting, or other tense situation. We are creating a world in which empathy is freely, publically, and abundantly available to all.

    I felt called to write because I think Santa Cruz is about the coolest place on Earth except for Berkeley, where I live; because you seem to be in Concord, MA, practically next door to my son and his family in Acton; and because this blog post is dated on my birthday. That feels really intimate, too!

    May your needs be held with care.

Share your thoughts