Difficult People & Empathy

Last week, at the YVR Airport, I found myself sitting in the waiting room of the US Customs Dept.

Let me take a few steps back. I was standing in line, waiting to go through US customs before getting on a plane to San Fran. Standing there, dressed in all black (as I usually do when travelling) I see a US Customs Agent doing ‘random checks’. An older, caucasian male with a shaved head and a demeanour of both a cranky grandfather who misses his glory days and a sad toddler who’s mother just left him at daycare for the first time. He was in the middle of ruining someone else’s day when our eyes met, and in that second, I could hear what he was thinking, “Oh, this guy. Just give me a minute, I’ll be back for you.”

On his way back to the line, he was doing that thing where people are walking somewhere between a walk and a sprint while also trying to make it seem normal. He didn’t even look at my passport, “follow me, sir.” Followed by questioning, fingerprints, a couple hours of waiting, a missed flight, and finally getting cleared for travel “from Washington”. Now I’d love to say this was the end of it, but the next day (having to take a flight through Calgary to get to the US because it was the next flight available) I got stopped again, for an hour this time, for more or less the same thing.

Anyone who has experienced something like this, getting treated like a criminal while traveling because of the way you look, name, etc, etc, will know that it tests your patience and how psychologically exhausting it can be. This brings me to my current musings on Empathy. Specifically, the challenges of empathizing with people who do something that causes you to become negative or people who ruin your day.

While sitting there in the waiting room, I could hear the agent, who picked me out of line, tell a story about how poorly he was treated at the border of Washington and Vancouver. Saying that the agent was being aggressive and asking ridiculous questions and that ‘I’m an American! I should be able to come and go as I please.’ Well, if you could see me in that moment, you’d see me sitting there smiling to myself. Smiling at just another comical time in my life where things just seem too perfect.

These are the times that remind me how people are just a product of their environment, and it is truly difficult blame someone for their decisions or behaviour. Even when we try and understand someone else’s perspective, you will never be able to be in their mental state because it includes the many years of life and experiences that have all amalgamated to form their personality and thought process.

No one is born with the ability to the best version of themselves, and unfortunately, we are not all assigned the best guides to make our way there. Every day is somewhat of a trial and error. So if there is one thing we can control, it is to keep ourselves in check and actively remind ourselves that everyone has a struggle, even if you don’t see eye to eye. If you are forced to deal with a difficult person, be the best version of yourself and leave the rest for the universe to figure out.

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