Saturday, 30 August 2014

Exercise in empathy

Yesterday I had an interesting experience at the water park. I was sitting on a bench underneath where the people wait to get on the purple side when I heard a splat. I didn't think about it much, just assumed it was a seagull making an offering. I remember being vaguely grateful that it didn't hit me and then kind of noticing that it wasn't white.

A minute later my bare arm was covered in what could only be warm saliva from above.

My initial reaction was to yell sarcastically - "Thank you very much I love you too."

I kept looking up and sure enough a 12 or 13-year-old boy was popping his head over the edge. Armed with my long lens I kept taking his picture.

I suggested he didn't want to do that again and that I now had his picture on my camera.

He smiled charmingly and said that I didn't have to keep taking his picture he wouldn't do it again.

I'm not at all sure that it was him and not some of the other kids he was with. But I do know that it was his turn next. Kind of a gross truth or dare thing.

I get it, I'm a funny looking creature at the water park. What with my large size and especially with my all-encompassing hat, and in the water I'm almost fully dressed as a guard against the sun.

What made it an interesting experience for me is that the kid and his sisters were Middle Eastern, probably Muslim by their dress.

Please keep reading before you formulate your comments. I beg you.

I don't want to hear any hate. I don't want to hear your thoughts about immigration. I didn't before this episode, and I don't after. I will delete them.

I'm not looking for praise either, just maybe a little reflection next time somebody ticks you off.

I admit that it took me a while to marshall any empathy as I sat there with spittle on my arm waiting for Emily to go down the slide, keeping an eye on the air above.

Nobody was happier than me to get in the pool again into the chlorinated water where there are actually probably a lot worse things happening.

But I just kept thinking that revenge is such a useless, hopeless, exercise in futility and that I have lived my life free of the sting of racism. I have never had anyone hold me down and spit in my face literally or figuratively day after day after day.

Did I have an unpleasant experience? Yes. Would I put up with it from the same kid again? No. But I'd still try to talk rather than hate.

Hate is mostly built from bricks of fear and it makes for a rickety wall.

I want to do my best to live a life of empathy and even though my initial reaction was sarcastic, it is also true.

I love you kid.

I feel that it's the most important thing I can do to improve the world even just a little bit.

But wait, what if it had been a blue-eyed blonde kid acting on a dare?

Hmm harder to find empathy there for sure. I do know there would have been more fear to make a report - of being sued by a helicopter parent for taking the kid's picture and suggesting he was in any way less than perfect!

I'd like to think I would work my way around to empathy eventually :-) And in any case no matter colour or creed the smartest kids in the world become waaaay less intelligent when on a mission to impress their friends.

This post is dedicated to my dad who walked a mile and everyone's shoes before he spoke.

Sometimes that was annoying when you were mad but mostly it was inspiring.


  1. What a beautiful reflection.

  2. I don't think it matters what colour or country the kid was from. Kids are kids - and in large groups they can be horrible. I've often thought that you see a person's true character or personality when they think no one is watching. This is especially true for children. At home, in school or 1 on 1 they are conditioned to behave a certain way and will naturally aim to please - but in a situation like an unsupervised water park, or out on the street with friends, at the mall - whatever - their decisions and actions are different. As parents, teachers and role-models we are responsible for setting an example for our children and hope that when the time comes and they are tested - they will make the right choice. Maybe not each time - but this is how kids learn. Ruth, you are an excellent role model for those around you. Someone was watching your reaction at the water park. Someone commended your calm cool approach (maybe the person who would have yelled or sworn at the kids). Someone thought 'what would I have done?'. Maybe someone else is blogging about a scene they witnessed. Hopefully that kid thought about his actions later that day OR next time he is faced to do the same thing - he won't.

  3. Ruthe, you are truly an amazing woman, and I am glad to know you :-)