Does Empathy Depend Upon a Feeling of Similarity?

Crossing paths with two strangers: What it might take to notice the needs of others

The building, it was true, had an empirical panache to it, and reminded of words that belong on a page: cantilevers, Renaissance, portico. I was a college student and my deepest worries were due dates and crushes. I was rarely in a hurry. As I walked, I gazed toward the building.

“What fascinates you the most about that building?”

One can be awakened from a daydream. I registered this: there was a man on a bike, moving just enough to keep from falling, and his hair was a carefree mop. He wore glasses, the kind with lenses that magnify the appearance of one’s eyes.

He went on from there, the content growing ever weirder. He diverged to referencing surgeries and removing spleens. He talked about things happening on a hill. I catalogued the experience as the folly of a schizophrenic character, the ranting of a friendly but disordered mind. I wasn’t worried about ending the exchange. And then this man did something that would ensure I would never forget him.

“You’re from Colorado, aren’t you?”

Yes. I told him yes. Perhaps that was a mistake. It may have been prudent to deny his omniscient wonder-senses. In my surprise I didn’t follow up with, “How do you know that?” A moment later, and he was done, the wheel of his bicycle turned away from me.

There was a second stranger, years later. In her case, it was not that she knew something about me, but that she knew how to find me. I gave her a name: Happy. She was tall and heavy, her hair pulled into a utilitarian pony tail. We first crossed paths at a pizzeria, where she was alone. Like the man on the bike years before, she spoke to me. My daughter held a tacky fast-food toy in her hand, and Happy admired it. She said she was collecting those dolls too. She continued on her way and I did what most would do: I paid no further attention to her. She was just quirky, one might say. Just a character. Just weird.

But then I encountered her again. We were both at a transit station waiting for the express bus to the county fair. The crowd grew larger and more unsettled as time passed with no bus. I eventually gave up and motioned to my three young children to walk to our car, an act that ensured that the bus arrived. We found seats, albeit squished, directly across from…Happy. While I was harried and flushed by then, still outraged by the tardiness of the misnamed “express” bus, Happy and her friend were content. I stared at the two of them. Why are you so happy?

Another month, another place. My children pestered me to stop at the pet store during a visit to our local mall. I don’t like the pet store, I told them. As usual, the children won. Puppies. Maybe a parakeet. And Happy. She sat on a folding chair, cradling a rabbit. She was peaceful in that otherwise bustling scene. The bunny looked soft. Look how she strokes its back. She’s the bunny whisperer. I wanted to tell someone. Did I want to tell her? I’ve seen you before! Why do we keep meeting like this? Why are you so happy?

We rely, as playwright Tennessee Williams put it, on the kindness of strangers. But most of those strangers don’t register our notice. Folks blend in. What does it take for us to notice each other — and to remember?

Research in human neuroscience has described the brain’s “default mode network”, or brain activity that occurs when one is not otherwise engaged in a cognitive task. Think of it this way: what do we think about during those spans when our minds are free? Our default is to process information as it relates to our sense of self. Among neurotypical individuals, we tend to spend our “free” mental energy reflecting on oneself. What did I feel? What do I want? Where will I go? As expert Marcus Raichle has noted, when we’re busy with something else, we might say that we “lost ourselves” in our work. That might unveil what we understand implicitly — the self dominates the brain.

As a result, we may make social connections best when the stranger in our foreground lifts a mirror and we’re looking back at ourselves. My mystery man and Happy both led me…back to me. When I encountered the bug-eyed cyclist, he was just another wanderer with a psychiatric condition. He was supposed to be the archetypal vagabond, full of nonsense, equal dashes entertaining and unsettling. Instead, with his improbable knowledge about me, he became part of my story.

So too with Happy. Spotting her in separate places, she was a figment of my older, more burdened adult self. I began to wonder if she was nothing more than my subconscious manifest. Maybe be happier, like I once was? Let life change without lament?

I’ve claimed them both, the building-watcher of my youth and the bunny cuddler of my middle age. They were strangers to me, like so many others whose paths I have crossed and failed to notice. I wonder what other connections I have missed when the stories aren’t so memorable. My children and I had little space on that bus to the county fair. Who sat on either side of us? Who was left to stand?

We are all unknowns among unknowns, each as small as the other. The focus may shift, the lens turned to micro, when we see ourselves in others, when we find the me in you. Often we rely on the breadth of our overlap — she’s my age, he’s from my company, she’s a cousin. We would be revolutionary if we could have nothing more in common than a moment in time, and still encode another’s presence, still extend a hand, still see ourselves in others. For me, it took two strangers possessed of magic to secure my lasting attention. Curiosity — and the compassion it can render — is revolution.