Learning About Empathy the Hard Way

I’m going to tell a story that isn’t going to make me look very good, but I believe the message is really important. I learned a lot from this situation and I’ve used it to be a better person. I’m always willing to talk about the faults of my past and present in order to create a better future not just for myself, but for all of the people around me.

I had the pleasure of working for a healthcare startup from 2013-2016. I was one of the first employees so I had some career opportunities available to me during my time there that I may not have had anywhere else. In 2014, at the ripe old age of 25, I was asked to help source, hire, train, and manage a team of salespeople. This was my first experience with management, so I was a bit anxious, but very excited. My initial team size was four. The team was quite diverse and location-based so I had to do some driving around to see everybody.

One of my team members was a young lady fresh out of college. She was 23 at the time I hired her. She was intelligent, enthusiastic, tall, pretty, a former standout high school athlete. She was involved with some really great causes where she was working with some professional athletes. She had a wonderful energy about her and a really nice smile. She was the type of person who could light up the room just by being there.

She started to often call off work because she was sick. Or she would be late to work. She did it way more often than I was comfortable with. This is a hard thing for a first time manager. You walk the line between wanting some production out of someone and giving the benefit of the doubt about the absences/late arrivals. She said her stomach was the culprit in almost all of these scenarios. I tried to work with her to find some common ground and come up with a solution, and we mostly did, but internally I was struggling. I found myself feeling some bitter thoughts about the situation. And worst of all, I thought she may be lying to me.

She said she had been working with a doctor to try to figure out what the problem was. And a few months later, they discovered the problem: cancer. I was so shocked. A 23 year old with cancer. That didn’t seem very fair to me, she had a lot more life to live. I also thought back over those ill feelings I had about the situation and felt pretty down on myself. How could I not have given her more of the benefit of the doubt? Why couldn’t I have been more supportive? Why did I even think I could understand what she was going through?

She went on leave from the company to pursue treatment. She eventually came back to the company in a different role on the marketing team with the corporate office. It was a much better fit for her because she could be more flexible. The company did a wonderful job of accommodating her. She was definitely an asset. I saw her many times when I was at the corporate office. I’d always ask her how she was doing and she always gave a really positive answer. It seemed like her life was getting back to normal.

Eventually I stopped seeing her around the office. I never got the full story but it sounded like she had left the company to pursue some other opportunities. Then I got an email from her boss on the corporate team. She had passed away. In summer of 2016 at the age of 25. All of those feelings rushed back. I was so sad for her and for her family. And I was again disappointed in myself for not being more understanding during my time as her manager.

I attended her visitation a week later. It was so hard to see her. It was hard to see her grieving family. She was so young, so full of energy, she had so much ahead of her. I was completely undeveloped in my outlook for eternity with the human soul, but dealing with death is still really hard even if you are developed. So it was something I just couldn’t understand at all at the time.

I still think about her quite a bit. I wrote about her today because she popped into my head. I learned a lot from the situation. Mainly I learned that we need to be empathetic towards other individuals. You can only know what is going on with yourself, because you can’t think or feel what someone else is thinking or feeling. This world is hard enough with everything else going on. We all deserve kindness and empathy and we’re in desperate need of it. Because we need others to be kind and empathetic towards us. It’s the golden rule for a reason.

*I wrote this prior to vast expansion of the COVID-19 virus. Now, maybe more than ever, we need to be good to each other. People are sick and are dying. People are losing their ability to earn income. Companies will most likely have to downsize. It doesn’t matter where this came from or why it is happening. All that matters is that people are suffering. Please be kind to one another. Walk with people where they’re at. Dive into the particulars of their lives. Humanity will get through this if we provide our love, empathy, and kindness to one another.

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