Practicing Empathy


While I was at the British Airways counter in Nashville checking into my flight to Milan to begin my Europe tour, an elderly woman lost control of her suitcase on the escalator behind me. Her cane fell out of her hand, she fell forward, then tumbled three quarters of the way down the moving stairs. Someone below figured out how to hit the escalator’s stop button as she was falling, and when it stopped, a small group of people instinctively rushed up the stairs to help her as she laid in a bloody heap three quarters of the way down.

I saw the scene from two floors above. There was blood, a lot of blood.

A small group of people held the injured woman in their arms on the stopped escalator, applying pressure to the spots on her gashed head and body, trying to slow the bleeding. Someone else called an ambulance.
I did not watch for long, the group of strangers below were helping, and it felt wrong for me to stare at the awful scene. There was nothing I could do. As I turned away to make my way to my gate, tears came. I had a hard time controlling my emotions.

My girlfriend grabbed my hand, told me the woman would be taken to a hospital, and she'd be patched up. She was going to be all right. She would not be traveling for a while, but she would be all right. As my partner consoled me, I struggled to contain my tears. We walked slowly to our gate.

To watch a frail person fall down and get seriously hurt is heart breaking. This kind of raw human vulnerability and helplessness is devastating to witness. Then to see stranger’s immediately rushing in to help, and to have a partner whose hand immediately reached for mine, reminded me that while we live in a dark time of division and rage, we human beings are also programmed for empathy and loving kindness for each other. This brought me to the brink of weeping. Kindness and empathy are as vital to our survival as food and water.

The elderly woman who fell down the escalator was probably someone’s mother, someone’s grandmother. The kind strangers who rushed up the moving stairs to help her, acting on a primal impulse to love, were in some ways sitting in for the old woman’s children, grandchildren, husband. Her loved ones, who were not there to help her at her most fragile moment, needed surrogates. Strangers did the job of family, until family could be summoned. I am certain that her family is grateful for their help.

We are all vulnerable, fragile, visitors to this planet, hanging out for a short while in flesh and blood human bodies. We are all aging daily - as are our parents and our grandparents. Time moves us all closer and closer to frailty every single day.

In Holland, I was able to return to the the KRÖLLER-MÜLLER MUSEUM for the second time. The Kröller-Müller Museum boasts the second-largest Vincent van Gogh collection in the world: almost 90 paintings and over 180 drawings. The van Gogh Gallery displays varying selections of about 40 works by Vincent van Gogh. As I walked through the gallery and took in the masters work again, what struck me most this time was his ability to convey deep empathy in his paintings. He makes us feel what he feels. He does it with brush strokes, use of colour, and deep feeling. Generating empathy, to me, is the higher purpose of art. Vincent wrote to his brother Theo, "Real painters do not paint things as they are ...They paint them as they themselves feel them to be.” This, I believe, is what artists do.

We do need each other. Even now, (especially now), as hatred and division on our screens and in our politics try and convince us that it is not true.

I am going to hang on, hang in. Try to stay with love. I hope you will too.