Sharing the Positive Human Vibe
It feels like people often think about empathy in terms of understanding other people’s pain, suffering or hardships. And that is an important component. The #MeToo movement asks us to listen to women’s experiences of being sexually harrassed, assaulted or debased, and to try to understand their feelings and how this has affected them. Black Lives Matter asks us to listen to the black person’s experience of being regarded with suspicion when driving, entering a store, jogging down a street, renting an AirBnB, sitting in a coffeeshop, watching birds in a park… the list, sadly, goes on and on. The Gay Rights movement asks us to understand what it feels like to be left out of basic human rights, like the right to marry the person you love and to have a family, or the right to serve openly in the military as the person you are. The Disability rights movement asks us to think about what it would be like if you just wanted to get from your home to library, but you find yourself unable to get your wheelchair over the big icy snowdrift in the intersection, or what it would feel like to have the waiter address your companion instead of you directly, as if you can’t think and speak for yourself.
But empathy also means sharing in others’ joy, happiness, and positive experiences and feelings. I was thinking about that when I was asked, as many of us are these days, what do you most look forward to doing when the pandemic is over? The first thing that leaps to my mind is going to outdoor concerts, especially my two favorites every summer, held in beautiful Mears Park in downtown St. Paul: the Twin Cities Jazz Festival, and the Lowertown Blues and Funk Fest. Not only are these events the perfect place to spend a lovely summer day, with fabulous music–they are also awash in good vibes! People are happy, and it is contagious–the smiles, the laughter, the sharing of food and conversation, the dancing… those good vibes fill the air, and fill the heart and soul. You look around and see all kinds of people there, mingling together in a big happy human mix, and you feel that connection. Maybe you smile at someone who smiles back; maybe you say a few pleasant words to someone in the food trunk line, and they respond and share a little of themselves. And then the music starts, and you thoroughly enjoy watching people dance with abandon. Your empathy picks up on and takes in these positive human feelings, and you feel yourself suffused with the joy of being human in this beautiful world.
We have had to take on a whole lot difficult experiences and feelings this past year. All of these things are important–the great loss of life and the weight of isolation due to Covid; the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and so many more; the loss of jobs; the increasing political divisiveness. Of course we must pay attention to these things; we must feel empathy for those who have been suffering; and we must do what we can, impelled by our empathy for our fellow human beings, to alleviate that suffering and to right those wrongs, or at least to acknowledge them.
But let us also revel in the joyful side of empathy–sharing the “good vibrations,” as the Beach Boys sang! As lyricist Tony Asher recalls, “Brian [Wilson] was playing what amounts to the hook of the song: ‘Good, good, good, good vibrations.’ … He said he’d always thought that it would be fun to write a song about vibes and picking them up from other people.”
We are reconnecting. It’s what we humans do. Empathy is the glue that holds humanity together.