The first person I ever met who truly lived in poverty was a woman who I will call Ana. 

Her home, made from mud with a tin roof, was accessible only by walking or riding in the back of a truck up a very steep mountain. She was the first person my assigned missionary companion took me to visit on my first day in El Salvador, and since it was my first day, my companion felt it was best that I walk. When we finally arrived on foot, we said a prayer, sang a hymn, and then I asked her, in my broken Spanish, to read a little card with a quote about Jesus. I wasn’t fluent but I knew enough Spanish to understand when my companion whispered, “she can’t read”. 

Ana has the cutest laugh - it’s more like a giggle. She giggled and told me, “no sister, I can’t read, but you can read it to me and I will listen”. 

I remember going back to our missionary house that day and crying - I was distraught by the circumstances that Ana lived in.. and I was mad. Mad that no one had taught this 60 year old woman to read. I was scared, because I recognized the danger of the community that surrounded her from the second I reached the top of the mountain. I could feel it.. it was tangible. I knew that she had very little money, because surely if she had any money she would have bought a door and a lock to replace the slab of tin that she propped up at night to keep animals out of her house. 

Now, 4 years later, what brings me to tears isn’t her mud house, or her inability to read. Some of the best people I know cannot read, and live in houses made of mud. Now, I am moved to tears by another memory from that day. 

After I read her the card about Jesus, she said to me: “pobrecita” which means “you poor thing”.  “You poor thing, you had to walk the mountain. The mosquitos are already biting you. They’re going to mark your beautiful skin. Wear longer dresses so that you don’t get bit.” She then handed me 2 quarters and said “so you can ride the truck back to town, instead of walking”. She had empathy for me. Me, the girl who had obviously never climbed a mountain, which she noted from my soft calves, with bright red, fresh marks from the mosquito bites. Her calves were hard, like stone and dotted with brown, faded marks. She felt my pain, because she knew the difficulty of what I was experiencing - she had walked the mountain, felt the danger, and scratched the mosquito bites every single day of her life. 

Empathy is a topic that has been on my mind. I share this story as an example. Four years ago, I was not practiced in putting forth empathetic effort. Rather, I was good at sympathizing. Sympathy is what I felt when I saw the little resources that Ana had. I felt bad for her. Empathy is what she did for me, and is far greater. She saw the challenge from my viewpoint, and put herself in my situation. She made me her equal, and felt my feelings with me.

Empathy is harder when we have no first hand experience with what another person is facing, and it is then that we must put forth empathetic effort. 

Research from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found evidence to support the claim that those that see empathy as something they can develop, rather than empathy as an innate reflex or a limited resource, are better at extending empathy than those who believe the latter. When we say “I just don’t feel bad for them” or “I’m running out of patience”, we are assuming that empathy is innate, or like a gas tank that runs out. 

I think empathy is more like a muscle. We will never experience every single hard thing that others experience, so we can’t always know first hand what that experience feels like, but we can exercise our empathy muscle by listening, finding tangible face-to-face ways to support them, and reminding them that they are never alone. 

I didn’t have to tell Ana how tired and scared I was, because she already knew what my struggle felt like. She had practiced empathy many times in her life. Her empathy muscles were as strong as her stone hard calves.

- Cassie Hancock de Afane, Founder of Materna Foundation Co & Co-Owner of Amorcito + Co

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