When I was a pre-teen I hung out with a few female friends. We walked to middle school together and gossiped with each other at lunch hour. We were a mini-pack. It was fun to be part of a group. One morning the gossip was about John, who allegedly liked Laura. At lunch the two sat together, fueling the rest of the group’s giddy speculations. By the next afternoon, the relationship was over. John had his eye on another girl and had cozied up to Laura to make the first girl jealous. I remember a distinct feeling of happiness with the result. I did not want a member of my pack having a social success that I did not have myself.

Some years ago I spent time with a group of local lobstermen. They were chewing the fat one afternoon, talking about boats, someone’s engine, and the problems of a young sternman. It turns out that the man had a bit of a temper as well as a tendency to drink. His wife had had enough and moved to a different house in the same town. The sternman was not pleased with her decision or the subsequent divorce papers he received. So one night, with a few under his belt, he made his way to his wife’s new house, took a bat to her car and smashed out all the windows. I listened to the tale aghast. The lobsterman telling the story paused. “Christ, he was still making payments on the car!” he laughed. The other lobstermen laughed and shook their heads. Someone asked if the sternman’s captain was going to let him go after he got out of jail. “No, he’s going to keep him,” the first lobsterman said. “You know, we’ve all been there.” The group nodded.

Now, before you think I am condoning the young sternman’s ridiculous act of violence, think again. Nor does this story imply that all local lobstermen have anger management or drinking problems. What was evident from the group’s behavior is what was so conspicuously absent in myself when I was young and is absent in so many public realms today — empathy. I found out later that among those lobstermen several were in Alcoholics Anonymous, many were divorced at least once, and some had been to jail themselves. Those that had reached middle age relatively unscarred had family members who had not been so fortunate. They could put themselves in the shoes of the angry sternman.

Empathy is not an ethereal notion. I saw it today at the grocery store. A young woman was headed through the automatic doors with a heavily laden cart. Angling their way in through the same door was an older couple with a smaller, empty cart. She paused to let them in. “You go ahead, I’m done. You’re just getting started!” she said. It wasn’t much, just an example of someone who put herself in the older couple’s place for the space of a minute.

Empathy seems to be in partnership with another quality painfully scarce today — humility. Humility is something you gain in a hard place. A long time ago I lost my job. To be honest, I was fired for being a particularly bad waitress. It was not a great job, but it was vital at the time. With it went any personal sense of stature, of being in control of my life. The “I” that I considered so important turned out not to be, at least not to my employer. In a later job I worked for a boss who had a habit of stating the obvious: “We are all dispensable.” It was not the sort of motivational statement to make you work overtime, but it was entirely true.

I sometimes hear people repeat the old proverb “there but for the grace of God go I” when commenting on an unfortunate event. That saying holds two meanings: in the first, you are expressing the belief that your fortune is not based on your efforts but on some other factor (God, luck, your horoscope) that you cannot control. The second is not quite as pleasant: it expresses the feeling of smugness we derive from viewing another’s misfortune. It’s an ugly element of human nature, a childish emotion, but it’s abundantly apparent in today’s world of refugees and calamities. 

Those lobstermen I encountered had all the imperfections of most human beings. They also had their own particular translation of the proverb — not “there but for the grace of God go I” but rather “there go I.”