I remember being aggravated with my father over his loss of hearing. His constant “Huh’s,” “What was that?” and asking people to repeat things got on my nerves. By the time he was seventy, it had become annoying. By the time he was eighty, it was no longer funny to hear him say, “I used to tell people I was getting hard of hearing. Now, I’m just plain deaf.” By the time he was ninety, conversation with him was sometimes not worth the trouble.
During one conversation on the phone, I repeated the same thing, in successively louder tones three times. There was a long pause, and then he said quietly. “I just can’t figure out what you’re saying; I’m going to give the phone to your mother.” In spite of my frustration, I could hear a heavy sadness in his voice.
Until I experienced my own significant degree of hearing loss well before I was sixty years old, I never thought about what he had gone through. Until I myself experienced the isolation, social separation, and some degree of the loss of communication ability, I simply didn’t think about what he had experienced. I didn’t think about it from his perspective because I just didn’t choose to do that. Now that it’s at least eleven years too late to do him any good, I have a much better notion of what Dad’s older years were like.
Empathy is not coincidental. It is true that we sometimes have epiphanies that give us wonderful insight into the experiences and situations of others. But ultimately, seeing things from someone else’s perspective is a matter of choice. And I believe that the more frequently we make that choice, the more likely we are to treat others as we would be treated.