On empathy

By | August 30, 2016

A list I’ve been cultivating recently is my list of reasons why I think empathy is a good thing. I know; you wouldn’t think I’d need a list for this, but it’s one of my personal duh realizations I have to keep relearning. I’m the center of my own universe and the protagonist in my story. The space behind my eyes is the most important place in the world.

For me. For you, the space behind your eyes is the most important place in the world. I forget that occasionally. Here’s how I use this revelation to make my world and my life better.

Reminder List of Why Empathy Is Good (in order of how well I do at them)

  1. Helps me ditch some fear.
  2. Use it to keep my optimism about the world alive.
  3. That’s basically how you make friends.

Ditch Fear

Not to brag on the Internet, but I’m pretty good at this one. I remind myself that everyone is the center of their own universe and everyone is the protagonist in their story. Acquaintances, people I pass on the sidewalk, workers who grow and pick and cook my food, those annoying birds that used to chirp incessantly outside my bedroom window in Sydney – they are all the center of their own universes and *I* am just a bit player to them.

What's up?

What’s up?

If everyone cares primarily about the space behind their eyes, they’re not really looking at me. In fact, the few times they are thinking about me, they’re probably wondering what I think of them. Ha! No pressure. No embarrassment. My life is my own stage and I’m the main audience member. As long as I’m enjoying the show, that’s what matters.

Optimism about the world 

I’m good, but not great, at using empathy to keep my optimism about the world alive. When venturing outside your cave and simply existing, you will encounter inevitable unpleasantness with other blinks in the universe. Instead of feeling agitated, I try to freely give the benefit of the doubt and imagine the person is having a bad day. Changing the world is hard. Changing my world is easier. I can change my attitude or I can change my circumstances or I can change my timeframe.

If I recognize my part in other people’s plays and strive to make my character a positive one, the odds are good that pleasant interactions will beget more pleasant interactions will beget more pleasant interactions.

I believe most people are mostly good. When you have pleasant interactions with people who exist in the world around you, the world seems happier. Because it is happier! So many duh realizations.

My balcony brings all the birds to the yard.

My balcony brings all the birds to the yard.

Note: this tip doesn’t work with birds. Those smug jerks.

Helps me cultivate friendships

I go through the world making noises and gestures and hope others gather what I’m trying to convey. The easier it is for us to communicate, the easier it is to understand the space behind our respective eyes.

I think this is where the distrust of immigration comes from. If you don’t understand the noises that people are making, maybe you assume the noises are bad. I know that’s a bit of a tangent, but it seemed pretty wise to me.

Everyone is the center of their own universe, but everyone also has supporting characters in the novel that is their life. Your significant others, your parents, your pets, your siblings, your friends, your coworkers all exist to interact with you and further the plot. I’ve written a bit about making friends and it essentially amounts to enticing people you like to make you a bigger player on their stage. 

What is our degree of separation? What do we have in common? Are you in my tribe?

From what I’ve gathered, the problem isn’t finding fun and cool and welcoming and happy people. This is one of my favorite discoveries about life so far.

Helps cultivate close friendships

The problem is time and brain capacity. We can have an unlimited number of strangers; plenty of acquaintances; many friends but only a few close friends.

My balcony brings all the birds to the yard

Wow I take terrible pictures

I’m not bad at the life skill of making friends. I have a lot of people I consider friends. I’m worse at making close friends. The line between close friends and friends is made with repeated interactions. I haven’t quite figured that last part out, but I think normal people do it by claiming a piece of the planet and waving at the people next door. I understand the nesting urge. Close friends are a key component of a happy life. Friends are good. Close friends are better.

What do you know about me and the universe behind my eyes? How much do I know about you and the universe behind your eyes? If the answer is “a lot”, I tend to think I know *you.* If I know a secret of yours, a special place behind your eyes, we’re probably pretty good friends. Maybe that’s why you email me like you know me.

But there’s more. For the “close friends” label, we need a lot of memories and fun and joy. Emphasis on a lot.


Black swan in Sydney. Not on my balcony.

The problem isn’t finding people, it’s finding that ineffable quality, the flow, the easiness, the time that comes with close friends. I’ve met a delightful amount of nomads since retirement and I’m starting to think the answer is going back to the same places that feel like home. Some amount of nesting. You waste less time on the finding and more time on the building. Depth versus breadth.


I think I’m running out of wisdom, you guys.

10 thoughts on “On empathy

  1. tt

    the old econ 101 assertion: an economy can produce all guns or all butter…

    the upside of being nomadic? check.

    depth & substance of specializing, in this case with people and place? hmmm… sadistic physics and calculus… motion, relativity.

    the wisdom of which you speak/seek is probably relative. casual, comfortable shoes in August & Boulder? Inappropriate or inadequate in February.

    Many years ago in Ottawa, my car sat for months @ a time as the Glebe neighborhood provided all I wanted/needed. Maybe a square mile. Of course I had just spent 15 years being a nomad.

    Kinda like your cooking adventures… hybrid synthesis of ingredients and spice up the ante… Consider using a base with periodic excursions into the wild?

    Your thoughts read like a blend is imminent… Here’s hoping you keep the blog posts coming! And enjoy the foothills!


  2. Simon Kenton

    Regrets. I am in Boulder, or close enough, but this came too late. Perhaps another year?

  3. Aperture

    What Simon said – so disappointed.

    I was fascinated to learn about mirror-neurons that fire with an activity OR with observing another perform an activity. Burn your hand and you snatch it away from the fire and put it in your mouth or under cold water. The person next to you grimaces and may do a little dance as if they are burned too. This seems like it may be a structural substrate of what we experience as empathy.

    Thanks for the thoughts. Hope you get to enjoy your visit in Colorado.

  4. Emily

    Close friends know where you’ve been and where you are and you can trust that they will be there for where you are going…. cheesy and true. Like pizza!

  5. Thriftygal Post author

    Sorry guys for not mentioning the meetup in Boulder earlier. If it makes you feel any better, that was probably my last one. I prefer one-on-one hanging out and not the larger group activities with strangers. So email me! I have an ongoing spreadsheet with cool people around the world that I utilize a shocking amount.

  6. Classical_Liberal

    “I think I’m running out of wisdom, you guys.”

    Ooohh No! The demands of being a popular travel, cooking, self help, and early retirement Blog queen are catching up to Thrifty Gal! I hope she has empathy for us poor slobs who check in every week to learn and live vicariously through her, struggle on young grasshopper!

  7. Annie

    Love this post! Great thoughts. To your list, I’d add an item #4 of “encourages gratitude” — thinking about what goes on behind the eyes of someone else (stranger or friend) helps me cultivate gratitude for my own situation.


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