I once had a job at an office building. My mission: do little, menial tasks around the office – and I loved it. Usually, there wasn’t too much for me to do – but when I found something, I jumped on it and got it done.
One day at work, a couple employees noticed that the water cooler jug was empty. No problem, I would just replace it.
As I walked over to go and grab a large, blue jug, an older, female co-worker whom I had never met before came up to me and said, “No, you shouldn’t do that, let’s get a man to do that.”
Well, I am all for the gallantry of men, but this company was 90% women and there was no man in earshot. So I politely replied, “No, it’s okay, it’s my job. I am a strong woman, I got it.”
Eh, maybe not really strong at all, but strong enough to lift a water jug for 5 seconds. Plus, I had to get it done. I wasn’t going to sit there useless when there was a task to be completed.
But this woman persisted. I had just started to get a jug ready when she tried to tug me back from the pile of water jugs and then tersely responded with this shocking statement:
“Women shouldn’t lift heavy things.”
Two back-sasses immediately ran through my mind:
1) Don’t tell me how to do my job.
2) Don’t tell me I can’t do something because I am a woman.
Calm down, Lauren, it’s no big deal, I told myself. But I could feel the fumes building up. What right did she have to tell me, a co-worker whom she had never met before, what I could and could not do? This was MY job! Furthermore, how could she, a business woman probably earning the money for her family, tell me I couldn’t do something because of my gender?
Despite the many comebacks swirling in my head, I held my tongue. I simply started to (politely) protest again, saying that, no really, I can do this, when she sharply shot something back at me that I will never forget.
“Do you want to see my scar?”
I stopped pulling the jug from the pile.
She had broken her back several years before and had to have multiple, painful surgeries to fix it. She had tried to lift something heavy, too.
I was too flabbergasted to do anything at that point, but luckily a random man appeared (who, frankly, probably should not have been picking up anything heavy either, but whatever) and he put the jug on the water cooler. I walked back to my cube without a word.
This incident wasn’t even that big of a deal, but I pondered about this the rest of the day, bouncing back and forth between who was right – this woman I didn’t know or me.
As I contemplated this situation, a phrase my Youth Sunday School teacher used to say wafted into my mind: “Everyone has a back story.”
[No pun intended. Time to get back to serious things now.]
There is always a reason why someone acts they way they do.
I often think that I have this phrase down, that I have adequately applied it to my life by not judging people, but then something like this happens and I realize that I am not nearly as far along as I thought I was.
But sometimes it is so tough. It’s hard to rationalize someone’s actions when they seem so unjustified. Some people are just too irreconcilably stupid and some people are jerks just to be jerks, right?
Well, not really. Here is another back story that you may not know about.
On August 13, 1862, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Scott and his wife (along with other soldiers’ families and many wounded soldiers) were travelling down the Potomac river on the steamer West Point when the ship collided with another steamer, the Peabody. Despite attempts to bring the ship ashore, West Point sank in 25 feet of water a mile and a half from shore. 73 passengers died, including Colonel Scott’s wife.
Colonel Scott desperately searched for his wife in the murky water, but could not find her before he had to return to Washington DC. A few days later, he was notified that his wife’s body had washed ashore. With the grief of her passing still fresh, he asked Secretary of War Edwin Stanton for permission to retrieve her body. Edwin Stanton refused.
Desperate to put his wife’s body to rest, Colonel Scott appealed to President Abraham Lincoln for permission to leave his post.
He entered Lincoln’s office and told the president his story, hoping to receive compassion and mercy.
He received quite the opposite.
“Am I to have no rest? Is there no hour or spot when or where I may escape this constant call? Why do you follow me here with such business as this?… At any rate, you must not vex me with your family troubles. Why, every family in the land is crushed with sorrow; but they must not each come to me for help. I have all the burden I can carry.”
And then he dismissed him.
Harsh right? Not something we normally expect from one of the most beloved presidents.
Well, let’s try to see things from Lincoln’s perspective – let’s look at his back story:
In 1862, the Civil War raged – killing thousands upon thousands of soldiers.
Only a couple months prior to the sinking of the West Point, Robert E. Lee had taken control of the Confederate army and led a brutal, 7-day attack that ultimately resulted in Union retreat. This was the biggest loss the Union had experienced yet.
Lincoln was also days away from publishing a plea to free Union slaves. The stress about the reception of emancipation must have been unimaginable.
And, like Lincoln said, the whole country was suffering. Thousands had lost family members, husbands, and sons. It would be foolish and unfair to allow one man to leave in order to have a funeral.
In light of the heavy burden Lincoln and the rest of the nation carried, Colonel Scott’s request must have seemed improper if not ridiculous.
But his own response to the situation deeply troubled Lincoln.
After sending away the heartbroken soldier, the president realized how much hurt he must have caused Colonel Scott. Lincoln pondered and worried about his unfeeling words all night. No doubt, he probably remembered when he, too, lost people very close to him – Ann Rutledge (the first love of his life) and his young son. Reliving the pain must have made him realize how the Colonel felt.
“My dear Colonel, I was a brute last night. I have no excuse for my conduct. Indeed, I was weary to the last extent, but I had no right to treat a man with rudeness who had offered his life for his country, much more a man who came to me in great affliction. I have had a regretful night, and come now to beg your forgiveness.”
And Lincoln made all the arrangements for Lt. Colonel Scott to claim the body of his wife.
I love this story. It teaches me so many things – compassion, forgiveness, having courage to say you are sorry – but most of all, it teaches me to have empathy.
Lincoln displayed a great amount of empathy – he looked beyond the ridiculous request and the storm clouds hanging over his head to see a man who was mourning the recent loss of a spouse. He saw the back story. And when he saw the back story, he empathized.
And you know what? With Lincoln’s example fresh in my mind, I think I might owe that one co-worker an apology.
Her initial attempt to stop me from lifting the jug made me incredibly miffed, but when I heard her story, I realized how stupid I must have looked. To her, I was some young, naive 19-year-old who thought she was invincible. This woman was just trying to save me from pain in the future. Sure, she was a bit blunt and forceful, but she was only watching my back [ok, that one was intentional, I couldn’t resist].
After all, empathy does not mean justifying the actions of another. It does not mean that you agree with their actions. It means that you have striven to understand their motivation behind their actions. You have tried to understand why.
When you see the back story, the empathy you develop will decrease your anger, stress, confusion, and worry while increasing your compassion, mercy, generosity, and kindness. The paradox of empathy is that in the process of understanding others, you become a better you.
Finding empathy can make the difference between starting wars or ending them, between creating an enemy or making a friend, between starving a relationship or reviving it. If each of us strives to develop more empathy, we will see massive, wonderful changes in our lives and in the lives of others.
They are starting to put ads on our blog. We do not approve these and are not getting any residuals whatsoever, so I apologize for the content. I’ll see what I can do about it.