Late Night Buddhist

Making a case for empathy

By Scott Taylor
Reader Staff

My grandpa used to have a small sign hanging in his woodshop with a quote that read: “Everyone you meet is in some way or another your superior.” He also displayed others that said, “Most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” — A. Lincoln; “You can always tell a German, but you can’t tell him much”; and, “Don’t criticize your wife’s judgment; look who she married.” 

I often thought about that quote while I was building shelves, boxes and toy wooden ships — and listening to Elton John or CSNY —  and would mentally take inventory of various people I knew and in what ways I viewed them as my superior. 

One example was my neighbor across the street, only a few years younger than I, who had been born with severe mental disabilities and some physical limitations. Everyone in our tiny town knew him and viewed him with empathy and kindness, but I wonder if anyone considered him “superior” to them in any way. What I noticed was that he was almost always happier than anyone else. I definitely looked up to him in that respect.

(The yang to this yin is that that means everyone you meet is also in some way your inferior. This may sound contrary to developing good relationships with others, but I found it useful to remind my adolescent students of this because low self-esteem and lack of confidence are major stumbling blocks at that age.)

One area of life in which I find myself being quite critical — usually in a “film/art/food critic” kind of way, but sometimes in a “somebody put that band/singer/fiddler out of their misery” kind of way — is regarding the musical world. I find myself critiquing and developing suggestions for ways that musical acts could improve their performances: “The lead guitar is too busy”; “They should make more use of their harmonies”; “The singer needs to show more enthusiasm (but not too much!)”; “The bass player shouldn’t come to gigs looking like he just rolled out of bed. It offends my aesthetic sensibilities.” 

I think this all stems not from thinking myself superior to anyone (how could I possibly critique Yonder Mountain String Band? But I wish their bass player would wear a hat; dude you’re blinding me), but from extensive experience and my desire to always strive to be better at what I’m doing. I can guarantee you nobody is more critical of me than me.

In a world that has become hypercritical — where everything we say, every thought we express, every position we hold, every misjudgment or error we commit is scrutinized and attacked by those who are ready and willing to claim their superiority — it would do us all some good to remember this:

Every time we criticize someone else, we are in effect saying, “I’m better than you in that regard.”

One of my favorite newer artists, Tyler Childers, expressed what others have pointed out: Right now many of us are lacking empathy toward others and their point of view. Maybe before we pounce on our children, neighbors and coworkers for not being as “smart” as us; before we come to a city council or county commissioners’ meeting to bitch and moan and personally attack them; before we denigrate someone for their political or religious beliefs, we could examine ourselves and try to see the world through their eyes. And we could all decide to choose happy!

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