Empathy is Work

Early in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, readers are introduced to a character named Queequeg. A native of the fictional island of Rokovoko – a land described as remote from civilization – Queequeg made the choice to leave the comfort of his island home and explore the world. 

Recalling one of his first whaling voyages, Queequeg tells a story of the first time he saw a wheelbarrow. When Queequeg’s ship docked at Sag Harbor, the owners of the ship offered a wheelbarrow to carry his heavy chest of belongings to the boarding house where he was staying. Queequeg did not want to seem rude by asking, “What the heck is this contraption and how might it help me?” Instead, he took his best guess at how it might be used: He picked the wheelbarrow up, tied both the wheelbarrow and his belongings to his body with the handles poking up above his shoulders and awkwardly walked to the boarding house. With a laugh, remembering this event from years ago, he shared how he had to learn to use the unfamiliar object in a way that was helpful. 

So often, when we attempt to step into others’ worlds, their behaviors don’t make sense to us. We may be baffled by their response to a situation or confused by their values. When confronted with what is new and different, we tend to grapple awkwardly with the other person’s perspective, trying to relate it to our own – like Queequeg clumsily walking with the wheelbarrow strapped to his body. 

Yet, a world of opportunity unfolds when we become aware that there are realities beyond our own and we make the choice to set down our own perspective to learn about another’s.

Best of all, developing this skill doesn’t require traveling to a faraway land. Every single conversation offers a chance for us to move beyond the realities of our own experiences and toward empathic understanding. 

Empathy doesn’t just happen to us. Empathy takes work. But like the wheelbarrow, empathy also can ease the load, providing a delightfully practical and person-powered way to connect with each other. 

Author: Alyssa Forcehimes, PhD

An expert in behavior change, substance use disorders and empathic communication, Dr. Alyssa Forcehimes serves as President of The Change Companies® and Train for Change Inc.® She lives in Arizona with her husband and two daughters.