When I was a freshman in college, I noticed that one of my floormates was eating alone. She often ate alone. My new-best-friend-because-we-were-both-from-Massachusetts (which was basically the only qualification I had for anyone to be my friend) and I looked at her with awe and amazement. I now see that we looked at her like she was a character from the Land of Misfit Toys or from the movie, The Greatest Showman. We said something that was probably patronizing (man, if I could go back, there is so much I’d do over), but I’ll never, ever, forget what she said to us.
“Its people like you that make this weird. Its people who look at those of us who eat alone like there is something wrong with us or like we SHOULD want something different for ourselves. I love eating alone.”
Let it sink in.
How often do you take notice of something someone else is doing or saying and pity them or even empathize with them, without really knowing how they feel about it? How often do you make an assumption about what they are experiencing based on what you experience or are experiencing as you listen to them? At best, this is an assumption or misunderstanding, but often, this assumption comes from our own experience of pain or fear; it is a version of projection (unconsciously shifting our own intolerable feelings about a situation and externalizing those feelings on to someone else). The way we respond to others is a reflection of who we are. Acknowledging that, getting curious about our internal reaction, and then either clearing it before responding or acknowledging it as part of our response, is essential to being of service to others. It is the only way to communicate empathy, connection, and acknowledgement of another’s experience.
So get curious. Get curious about yourself and get curious about those with whom you interact. People want to be understood and the only way to honor that, is to listen without attachment to your version of their experience. It is a paradox of being connected to oneself while also being selfless in the interaction. The willingness to look inside and examine our inner life is the only path that will lead us there.