This is a little piece I wrote about empathy, or lack thereof.
One of the world’s biggest problems, an issue that can be tied to the roots of many of today’s talking points–poverty, police violence, bullying, inequalities due to race, sex, religion, etcetera–can be linked back to empathy. All too often, people fail to see life through the eyes of strangers. Our experiences are all different, all unique. Just because it works for you, doesn’t mean it’s going to work for me.
This is about the five senses and how they can tell you so much more if only you’re willing to pay attention.
Through the Window
by Curtis A. Deeter
Take a look through my window. I’ll even leave a light on at night in case you’re easily embarrassed. You can see me, but I won’t see you. You’ll see an overweight, balding, gruff man who hasn’t shaved in months. You’ll see me with yet another beer in my hand or sleeping with my eyes open because I can’t bear even one more nightmare. You’ll pity me and think I’m disgusting. You’ll congratulate yourself on not being me—you’d never allow that to happen—before moving on with your life.
Maybe you’ll tell the story of the man through the window to your kids; a cautionary tale.
What you won’t see is a young man, fresh out of high school, with big ideas on how his life is going to unfurl. He’s wearing fatigues and holding back laughter as his bunkmate is reprimanded for another raunchy impersonation of the aquiline Drill Sergeant. Or the same man—years later and worlds apart—wearing dress blues and saluting seven draped American flags with the only hand he has left.
You’ll see a different man, a pariah, but you’ll likely smell him first. He is sleeping under a trash bag in the alley behind O’Malley’s because O’Malley is the only one in town who will leave day-old food in to-go bags. You’ll see the boils on his face, the sores on his lips. You’ll smell the rotten trash in the dumpster beside him, hear the buzz of flies as they make their home among the folds of his jacket.
But you don’t know him. You don’t know about the long hours he spent opening the bakery, or the sacrifices he made to keep it running. You won’t know his family, either, or how they were the reason he worked so hard to create a better life. Minimum wage wasn’t working anymore. He didn’t know about the city’s plan to open up a Tim Horton’s and a Starbucks right down the street. He didn’t know he could ever find himself so utterly alone.
But he’s not the only one. Is he?
You hear her first, the woman behind you at the red light. She’s angry, yelling out the window at you if you wait even just a second after the light chances. You’ll wonder why she’s so angry, maybe give her the finger or cuss her out in return. She blares her horn and screams at the top of her lungs, so you turn your radio up. If you can’t hear her, she doesn’t exist.
Her song is different. Instead of drums, she has the rhythmic wails of a newborn up late into the night. Instead of a guitar, the strummed power chords of her fourteen-year-old home past curfew again. He’s angry, his eyes are bloodshot, and she’s pretty sure he has a hickey on his neck. She tries to speak softly, but the hormones tearing him apart come out in a cacophonous blast.
When it’s all over, the sweet song of her baby laughing as she reads “One Fish, Two Fish” makes it all worth it. The soccer lessons, the swimming classes, the trips to and from school every morning and every afternoon. Every second she gives to them is a second she gets back from her life before.
Then, a lifetime ago, a teenage girl not much different from you feels lost and afraid. Her smooth skin is scarred in a crisscross pattern, but none of the boys at her school are looking at that. She’s matured early; they want to feel something else, and they make it clear as glass. If she lets them feel her, she’s a slut. If she doesn’t, she’s too much of a proud and has to sit alone at lunch.
How is she supposed to win when all she feels is the back of her mother’s hand imprinted on her cheek and her brother as he takes away her innocence over and over again?
No, you’ll never see the young man in his uniform or smell the father’s first cinnamon roll. You’ll never hear the woman teaching her kids—and herself—common core or feel the girl’s pain every morning she wakes up in that same house to go to the same school. You’ll see what you see, hear what you want to hear.
But hopefully this is a taste; a taste of something sweet behind the sour.