How a moment of connection taught me more about empathy than all my classes

Empathy:  the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also:  the capacity for this (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

For the purposes of multicultural psychology class during my masters, I did an immersion course in Guatemala with another 15 girls. As we were wandering in the colorful streets of Antigua, me and classmates kept meeting a lot of locals, who showed us various places to hang out. Some boys invited us to go to this “special” bar, which was not exactly private, but was for a selected few. And there we are, following these men.

By that time, I had drank a couple of 2 dollar mojitos, had danced some salsa with locals, and I had started feeling sick on my stomach. I became a bit distant, but still followed the group. We entered an admittedly beautifully decorated and quite eclectic bar. There was a bartender cleaning up and about 3 customers sitting quietly at the bar drinking. The light was low and there was a suave music playing, which was pretty soothing. At the same time though, the big metallic gate of the bar closed immediately behind us with a thud. We were invited to approach the bar. After we had ordered some drinks (club soda for me to get my stomach right), the other girls started socializing tentatively, while I remained quiet at my corner keeping an eye on everyone.

As the time was passing, the boys and girls were drinking, and the gate was opening very infrequently to welcome a few other locals, I was wondering if I should get worried or not. We were in this “special” place, pretty one, but with a huge door we could not open with a couple of strangers, without really knowing how to get back to our hotel.

A few minutes later, I was approached by a 40 something year old man from an Eastern European country. He wanted to talk to me and asked so in a way that appeared to me a bit too assertive. By that point, I had raised my defensive walls and said “no” when he said “I want to talk to you.” He insisted and I refused again. He tried once more and even though I was upset, I said “OKAY, talk to me!” He seemed a bit intimidated by my tone and I repeated “go ahead talk to me!” I am not very proud of my demeanor, but that was what I said.

I could not have imagined what happened next. With his limited English, and my almost non-existing Spanish, after lots of gestures and body language, he explained that he had recently been though a divorcio and he had two hijas, two little daughters, who he had not seen for a while and who he was missing. He repeated the same words with the same gestures over and over and he seemed to be getting anxious that he could not get his message through. Eventually, I said, “you really needed to talk about this, didn’t you?” I looked at his face and right after I finished my last word, his eyes had started tearing up and, with a sigh of relief he exclaimed “YES” and cleared his eyes.

My whole week of immersion in the Native American cultures, my previous fun moments with so many Guatemalans, the countless hours I was reading multicultural psychology books, all the lectures we have had while in that trip could no longer compare to that simple learning experience. I and a stranger person, whose languages I could not speak and who could not speak well any of mine, managed to have an honest moment of understanding. That was not therapeutic, but it definitely was quite cathartic for both of us. He went on dancing and I went on to talk to a few more people.

As we were leaving the special bar for the selected few, I was realizing that the need of connection will overcome any barriers we have. And a simple expression of empathy can give people opportunities to meet and share authentic moments with people who otherwise would have been nonexistent in their world. Today, I am thinking that such moments of connection are the most important reason why I keep traveling and why I want to empower other people to keep doing so.

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