The Power of Empathy

November 21, 2017


By Sage Knight

I got up this morning as usual, helped my son get ready for school, drove the carpool, and then lingered for the dedication of Topanga Elementary School’s new Village Stage and Learning Garden. I approached a stranger, asked where I could get a program, and then took some photos. Ignoring my son’s reassurance that he could mooch off his friends on the field trip, I bought him a sandwich from the nearby Country Natural store and happily began the short drive back up to Viewridge for a morning hike on the Santa Maria trail.

While rounding the bend at Santa Maria Road, I gasped as a car crossed the center divider and drove right at me. Thinking fast, I swerved into the turnout and avoided a collision.  But in that split second, slamming on the brakes caused the box on my passenger seat to careen onto the floor. While the other driver went on his way, I walked to the passenger side and pulled out the box to survey its damaged contents.

Yesterday, I had lined this box with a towel, carefully adding bubble wrap for extra protection. This morning, I left my house transporting twelve tiny hand-made ceramic women statues, all signed and numbered. All were in their most fragile state — dry but not fired. The pieces looked solid, but only inertia and memory held them together.  Until fire solidified them into stoneware, they were mere collections of dust. When I left the house, I had twelve. Now I counted seven. I wasn’t harmed. No living, breathing creature had been damaged – just some women made from dust.

I got back in the car and drove to the trail. The dog, after all, still needed a walk, and I needed to absorb nature’s healing energy. I sobbed on the way, first blaming myself for having them in the car, for not bringing them to the studio yesterday as planned, and for not protecting them when the near-miss happened. Between these self-defeating thoughts, I tried to reassure myself that I could make more, that these things happen, that it could have been worse.

But it bothered me that this oblivious driver had no idea what impact his actions caused. Logic didn’t ease the pain of loss. I needed empathy, understanding, someone to listen and care. I resolved to call a good friend when I got home.

While walking on the trail, I came to that magical place right before the bridge, where the sun shines through the trees.  If I look carefully, I swear that I can see fairies in the sun light. They’re probably horribly allergic particles of pollen to some people, but to me, they look like pixies. I squatted down and let the tears pour onto the dirt.  I allowed myself the luxury of this grieving time before jumping back into the world.

Then I heard a voice, “Susie, that’s your friend. Go see him, but gosh, put that fur down and be friendly.” It was the stranger I’d met earlier that day at school. Now she was out walking her dog. We both stepped outside our usual routines, with me arriving at the trail an hour later than usual, and the stranger, whose name I now learned is Sophie, walking the dog that her husband usually takes for a run.

Out of the blue, this angel appeared and agreed to hear my story. Understanding full well the attachment I had for my artwork, Sophie offered me a hug, and the missing ingredient from this experience – empathy from a caring person. It made all the difference between enduring or healing from this unfortunate incident.

While we talked, the dogs romped. When Susie romped into the creek, reminding us that the time had come to move along, we organically resumed our lives. The moment had passed, completing some mysterious circle of happenstance, coincidence, or synchronicity that resulted in peace and joy.

But was it coincidence that Sophie and I met twice within two hours? Or that Sophie helped me both times? Maybe. How many details had to line up perfectly for all this to take place like it did?  Did it have anything to do with my recent commitment to stop criticizing, realizing that the childhood fear of not being enough was the cause and criticizing other people and myself was the effect?

Could I have attracted this healing by my desire and commitment to stop blaming anyone for anything, and to remain aware that there is a Higher Power, a Greater Intelligence, and a Stronger Love on the horizon no matter how it may appear? Was this an answer to sincere prayer? How valuable were those women of dust? Could they have possibly been more valuable whole than they were in the lessons taught by their dust? Who knows?

It’s a wonderful paradox. There’s no way to know how or to what extent our actions impact others – the actions that hurt and the ones that heal.  Realizing that I have a choice about whether to go into victim mode because of unmet needs from my past is worth more than five figurines to me.  Learning the importance of empathy and knowing how much God cares is worth more than gold.

Sage Knight can be contacted at

From the desk of Melody Beattie
Originally posted 2010

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