Tag Archives: empathy

E is for Electric Sheep

Walk a block in Carrie Bradshaw's (Sarah Jessica Parker) shoes. Then maybe hail a cab - those shoes could be uncomfortable.
Walk a block in Carrie Bradshaw’s (Sarah Jessica Parker) shoes. Then maybe hail a cab – those shoes could be uncomfortable.

I was happy to be recently asked to go into the ABC Studios at Collinswood in Adelaide to appear on the radio program Afternoons with Sonya Feldhoff. The program airs daily on 891 ABC Adelaide. Sonya had asked me to come in to discuss empathy. I arrived, as instructed, 20 minutes before air time, which was to be after the 3pm news. A security guard promptly escorted me in the elevator up to a waiting area. I was then invited into the control room, and asked how I pronounced my surname. Obligingly, I told the producers, but stressed that whatever way Sonya said it would be fine with me (I’ve heard many fascinating variations). Once Sonya wrapped up a segment, she came out, introduced herself, and asked if I’d like to stand or sit (the desk can be adjusted to either position). Desperately trying to downplay the prima donna label I imagined my Uniqlo jacket conveyed, I told her I’d be happy with either. A little bit of off-air conversation during the news, and we were ready to go!

I really enjoyed being on the show. Sonya had done her homework and, from my point of view, we had an engaging chat. We covered a whole range of topics, including the meanings of empathy and sympathy; how we use our past experiences to understand others; emotional contagion (feeling as if you have taken on another person’s emotions); and the problems one might encounter from having a lack of empathy. I got to quote Atticus Finch; the good one, not the racist one. I even attempted to explain some of the physiological processes associated with empathy. I’m just glad that I didn’t point at my head as if to say, “Thoughts come from here”. Given it was a radio broadcast, that could have been a lot of dead air.

The time flew, and I was glad to be asked to stay a little longer after the 3.30 news. Here’s the link to our June 1 interview if you’d like to listen.

Of course, if you can’t spare a half hour, perhaps you’ll like this shorter discussion between Mark Ruffalo and Murray of Sesame Street about empathy. I love it.

My friend, Fredrik, swears I resemble Mark Ruffalo. I don’t necessarily see it, but he’s insistent. Actually, (the very friendly) comedian Eddie Bannon was finishing up a segment at 891 just as I sat down in the waiting area. He walked toward the elevator, stopped when he got close to me, and asked if I’d ever seen the video of a guy discussing the word “djent”. Supposedly, I looked and was dressed like a very talented man named Steve Terreberry. I had dressed very buttoned-up for my radio debut, so perhaps there’s something there. Like one of my favourite childhood authors, Marvin Miller, would advise, “You be the jury”.

That fabulous jewel thief will steal your necklace and your heart.
That fabulous jewel thief will steal your necklace and your heart.

Jimmy Wayne: He’s Been There

jimmywaynehighres3If I could be you and you could be me for just one hour

If we could find a way to get inside each other’s mind

If you could see me through your eyes instead of your ego

I believe you’d be surprised to see that you’d been blind.

Walk a mile in my shoes, walk a mile in my shoes

And before you abuse, criticize and accuse

Walk a mile in my shoes.

I began the first chapter of my PhD thesis with those lyrics from Joe South’s Walk a Mile in My Shoes. In the thesis, I sought to investigate whether having had a past experience similar to another person made it easier to take their point-of-view. Taking someone’s point-of-view is perspective taking, a component of the broader term empathy. In short, it did and I’m still writing about that. One thing that emerged was that it wasn’t just about having had a similar experience to the other person. Instead, the extent to which someone reflected on and tried to get insight into their experiences was a critical determinant of how comfortable they felt (mentally) walking a mile in the other’s shoes. Empathy or sympathy can often have a motivational component: in the words of Lauren Wispé in 1986, it also involves “the heightened awareness of the suffering of another person as something to be alleviated”.

Singer-songwriter Jimmy Wayne fits the bill for that kind of motivation. He is an advocate for a group that he once walked amongst. It was 1 January, 2010 when Jimmy started his walk from Nashville, TN to Phoenix, AZ. Now, I couldn’t really imagine walking anywhere after New Year’s besides McDonald’s. Did I mention that the distance is approximately 1700 miles? For those who use the metric system and haven’t already gasped, that’s about 2735 kilometers. Have you gasped (while your mind wanders back to New Year’s Eve with Planter’s Punch and vegetarian spring rolls) yet? His purpose was to bring attention to children in the foster care system who “age out” when they turn 18. This is a group that already has significant (often unmet) need and they then face homelessness, incarceration and mental health issues. Since then it’s rare when you see Jimmy posting on Twitter and Facebook, or when you chat to him, that he isn’t about to or has performed and spoke somewhere to raise awareness. Project Meet Me Halfway came about as a result of his walk. Jimmy is also proud of his role as a national spokesperson for CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates).

jw_photo_barlowe_4-0367bdd

Growing up, Jimmy was in and out of foster care, group homes, and out on the streets. He was also in 12 different schools in two years and his mother, who went to prison twice, struggled with substance use and always had “a sadness about her”. As he put it once, “Mom in prison, no dad, cheatin’ girlfriend—perfect country songs”. At 16, “… my life changed. The Costners gave me a home”. The Costners were Bea and Russell, a couple in their seventies who took Jimmy in. He finished high school, attended college and started to perform. They only things they wanted were for him to cut his hair and attend church with them. Perfectly reasonable – he does have a good head of hair, though.

Jimmy was spotted at a talent contest. He didn’t win, but no matter (it’s funny how many people I hear talk about how they didn’t win such a contest, but it was still influential; my friend Donna Loren tells a similar story). With country legend Harlan Howard’s adage “three cords and the truth” in his head (Jimmy also has a story about that) his first single, “Stay Gone” went to #3 on the country charts, and eventually he went #1 with “Do You Believe Me Now”.  I remember buying his debut album at a shopping centre (the Marion Shopping Centre in Adelaide to be exact) after seeing a movie with friends. I don’t remember what the film was. However, back then my friend Luke kept the stubs of the tickets in his wallet until he had a “quite a wedge”. I may be able to track the film down that way.

In October, Jimmy’s story will be out there for an even wider audience, when his book Walk to Beautiful is released by Thomas Nelson publishers. He co-wrote it with Ken Abraham over about a year. With a New York Times bestselling co-author and Dolly Parton reading it (take a look at that here – that woman makes lemonade and wine sound even more appealing) it’s going to make an impact. Jimmy deserves it. Someone who hasn’t been a homeless youth can’t understand what it is like to walk in those shoes. I also know Jimmy is humble enough not to make blanket statements that he knows exactly what other foster kids would feel based on his experience. Everyone’s experiences are different. However, the power of Jimmy’s message is in getting his story out there. Sometimes the best way to help a person understand what is foreign to them is to tell them about it. Of course, they have to listen, but I think Jimmy’s way of engaging with others has that covered. That’s a start to help people identify something, however small, in another’s story to which they can relate. Often from that comes a motivation to connect or help. That’s really the height of empathy, isn’t it?

Walk to Beautiful

But enough about shoes. I kicked mine off earlier and don’t know where they are. Walk to Beautiful is available for pre-order at Amazon, Book Depository, and in the usual places that you find books. You can also find Jimmy on Twitter and Facebook. He’s a very funny man. And his dogs Ruby and Tate are about the cutest things ever.

Photos of Jimmy courtesy of his website.