One of the definite downsides of living in a self-induced protective bubble for most of my life is that I’m not very good at empathy and making connections with certain people. My default position has always been to push you away and focus on our differences rather than our commonalities.
During the past four months as I’ve excavated deeper into myself, this empathy void has continued to niggle me, and sit as an impediment to my living a fuller life. This fact became glaringly obvious again today when I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts The Good Life Project, and this week’s interview was with Katherine Preston, who has been struggling with a severe stutter since the age of seven. Five minutes into the podcast, all those knee-jerk reactions in me started to bubble to the surface. I began telling myself that this episode will be “stupid” and that I would have nothing to learn from Katherine’s experience, so maybe I should just skip to the next episode. Interestingly, something inside me that began as a very weak whisper and quickly grew into a scream of urgency told me “boredom” was not the problem at play, but rather my “discomfort” with the podcast’s subject matter. Then I made the most important decision of my morning; I decided to listen to the entire episode with a new ear of empathy.
Many of you, who are much more attuned to empathy, already see where this is going. Katherine discussed how she spent the early part of her life living in denial of her struggles and avoiding anyone associated with the field of stuttering. By the age of 24, she no longer could live 'half a life', so she quit her position in the financial sector and set out on a quest to “find a cure” for her stuttering problem. She threw herself into a 12-month project that lead her to all of the research and medical literature, and eventually to conversations with other people, such as GE CEO Jack Welch and actress Emily Blunt, who have battled their own problems with stuttering.
What began as a “quest to find a cure” became a journal of discovery in which Katherine learned that when people interact with someone who stutters, they don’t see an affliction, but they see courage and resiliency. During the interview, Katherine was asked what we should do when we are talking with someone who is stuttering and we see the person struggling to get a word out. Should would interject and finish the word? Katherine said it varies from person to person, but for her, it’s all about "finding and releasing her voice", so she prefers that people just maintain patience and eye contact with her. The interviewer also remarked that when Katherine is stuttering and struggling to get a word out, the most enchanting smile comes over her face. He asked where this smile comes from and Katherine responded: "I think it’s a compassion thing – for myself and for my listener. I do it subconsciously, but it stems from a desire to remind myself that I don’t need to be scared of stuttering. Beyond that, I do it to put my listener at ease, to let them know that nothing terrible is going on, that stuttering does’t need to frighten them or make them feel awkward.”
By the end of the podcast, with tears streaming down my face and other subway passengers looking at me suspiciously, I realized that life had taught me an important lesson today. By quieting that voice inside me that says “you’re different from me” and opening my heart through empathy, I was able to see how similar I am to Katherine. Four months ago when I decided to seek help for childhood sexual abuse, I too was on a “quest for a cure”, the magic formula that would make all those painful memories go away. The elixir to make me feel “whole” again. The panacea to make me “the same” as everyone else. Like Katherine, I too believe that the thing I sought a “cure” for is in fact the most wondrous “gift” in my life. Instead of being the dark secret that pushed me away from you, it has become the pathway to open empathy within me, and that is the best way to make me closest to you. I am growing to realize that discomfort and disease are nothing more than “un” ease in my skin. By learning to “sit” with that discomfort in a nonjudgmental way, I open my heart to you, and I can’t imagine a more meaningful “quest” in life.
[I welcome your comments and feedback below.]