We have to be able to enlarge the perspective with which we view the world if we hope to become truly empathic.
"My name is Carol Ann," she said. How is that possible? I thought. My name is Carol Ann. How dare she have the very same name as me? I thought, then took a deep breath. She had a gentle voice and demeanor, unlike my bold in-your-face journalist's persona. I was bristling, like fatty spare ribs on a grill. She was crowding me in the locker room, in the same row, a couple of lockers down. I decided to get my act together and engage what is called in the bias and inclusion world the "extended contact effect."
I had judged this woman from afar for many months, and my judgment had not been kind. There she is again with her rolling bag and attitude, I thought, whenever I saw her. If we get out of the pool at the same time she'll make a mad dash to the best shower stall. Only three of six have been open since Covid lockdown, an employee shortage like everywhere else; the stalls have to be disinfected daily. And that close-cropped haircut of hairs, how conventional, how provincial. Unlike my pool acquaintances, she wasn't friendly, never greeted anyone, and made a fuss when someone was late exiting their reserved lane. Or had I imagined that, or exaggerated it?
Okay, so here we go, and there she—that horrible selfish woman—goes yet again, I thought, as she rushed to the best shower stall on the day I finally introduced myself, intending to blast her for her selfishness. Why had I hesitated for so many months to make contact? I'm educated, traveled, and I'd shed my city centric cosmopolitan bias since I'd moved to upstate New York, or thought I had. I could tell her a thing or two without losing my cool, right, or just be friendly?
My doppelganger smiled at me and began to chat. How wrong I had been to blow her off. Not only did we have the same name, we'd been born in nearly the same year. "Of course,"" I said, "that makes sense. Names are generational. Whatever was on TV or in the movies at the time we were born influenced our parents." I didn't go into the long story about my refugee parents' choice of the most American name they could think of, a name that I have never felt suited me. I wondered how this "other" Carol Ann felt about her name. But that conversation was a long way off. I was still bristling under my politeness. Beyond our name, we don't have much in common, I thought. Wrong again. It turns out that Carol Ann is also a writer, albeit she writes for her church newsletter. Church newsletter. Oh no, I thought. Okay, so concentrate on writing, swimming, this beautiful landscape we both live in. And don't make any assumptions. Here's a woman who lights up when she talks about writing. Just like me.
Humbled and embarrassed by my biased thinking, I tried to relax. Perceived enemies can be the best teachers of radical empathy.
The rest of the locker-room conversation didn't last long. We packed up our rolling bags—yes I have one, too—and exchanged email addresses before saying good-bye.