Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Perspectives in Empathy

Before diving into the sometimes murky world of personal psychology, two notes in the way of anniversaries. First, it was one hundred years ago (Jan. 9, 1913) that Richard M. Nixon was born. I hope I never get over the dark complexities that influenced Nixon to become the most Shakespearian  of all our modern presidents. He wore paranoia like a badge of honor, and make it a point to trust as few people as possible. He was an introvert who somehow became a political figure. His loyal subordinates (more than what you might think) did all they could to keep their boss' bad side out of sight of the public. And I hope he never stops being mentioned in this space, though over time his personality is destined to become less and less familiar as time passes. About all we have now to remind us are a handful of former White House staffers like G. Gordon Liddy, a slightly disappointing Oliver Stone movie and a good number of books.

At the end of 1972, Roberto Clemente had already played seventeen years for the Pittsburgh Pirates, but he was more than a player. He was a role model, leading the way in showing that a mere baseball player could be an example to an entire class of people (American Latinos), and a role nodel for everyone. He helped collect and organize a flight loaded with aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua, and was on the plane, which, unfortunately, crashed on takeoff under stormy conditions. It happened December, 31st, the second day of our marriage, forty years ago. An award carrying Clemente's name is given annually to a baseball player involved in community service. He was elected to baseball's Hall of Fame within a year of his death, and is still missed by baseball fans everywhere.

Remember the phrase we always associated with Bill Clinton when he was a candidate? You're right if you recall, "I feel your pain." That little phrase sums up the quality of empathy - seeing (and feeling) things the way other people do. Naturally, some people have this quality as a kind of gift which opens the door to all kinds of (mostly) good works. Others, like Mitt Romney, have a hard time with this particular quality, or at least demonstrating that they have it. And, of course, it isn't limited to politics.
I'm reading the book Team of Rivals, which is the latest Lincoln biography to attain  bestseller status. Lincoln was ambitious, he was political in every sense, and as president he stretched the Constitution considerably trying to reunite the nation during the Civil War. But for whatever reason, empathy also came easily to him. The book recalls that he once walked a half mile retracing his steps to where a hog was stuck in a mire. Lincoln had no connection or feeling for the beast, but pulled it out of its predicament anyway, in order to feel better himself. I hope this didn't happen on the way to something important. 
My tennis magazine allows people to write in to ask for help from teaching pros. A man wrote in to say that he had experienced a "medical issue" with his left arm, and had learned the game again, this time playing right-handed. Several local coaches had commented that they would not have known that had ever played the game lefty, but he still had a problem sometimes with reacting to opponent shots as a left-handed player would. What could he do?
The answer came from Nick Bollettieri, probably the world's best-known tennis instructor. It started with the words, "..you need to work on your anticipation" and went on to offer specific suggestions, but never noting what a challenge the man had already overcome. True, he wrote in looking for suggestions, but would it have killed the famous man to simply say "Wow. You've already done something your whole family can be proud of. I doubt one player in a thousand could have actually changed hands playing a game that's so hard to master. You're an example of what people are capable of if they are determined." Well, I suppose that's the difference between a teacher and someone who leads by inspiring  the people around him..                     


Post a Comment

<< Home