A Special Kind of Empathy

I’ve been deeply moved by the amount of empathy I’ve witnessed lately. Granted, it’s always seemed as though Americans have an immense caring for how their actions impact those around them; but lately, it’s been special. In fact I had a most extraordinary encounter with it this week.

The South Jersey area experienced several days of rainfall. I noticed my windshield wiper blades beginning to streak. It wasn’t so bad during the day, but during the evenings it could look like someone smeared Vaseline on the window. As it drizzled one afternoon, I figured it a good time to replace them.

Much like the empathy I’ve witnessed lately, my windshield wiper blades are also “special.” In fact, they’re so unique I can only purchase them through the dealership where I bought my car. As it’s in an out-of-the-way area, I procured a spare pair when I took the car in for service during the spring of last year.

I learned from past experience. The first time I needed windshield wipers I went to the auto parts store in my neighborhood; the one I drive by on the way home. Windshield wiper blades are a very common part. Every car has them. I can get them anywhere any time I want, I figured. Wouldn’t you know it? The auto parts store—one that’s part of a national chain–didn’t carry this “special” brand. As I didn’t want to make special trips anymore, I made sure I’d always have a spare set at home whenever I needed them.

To paraphrase Robert Burns: the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray. When I installed the windshield wipers, they were incorrect. The person who pulled them gave me two passenger side wiper blades: not one for the driver’s side and one for the passenger’s side. As I happened to be off from work the day this occurred, I opted to go out of my way to the dealership to pick-up the right wiper blade.

When I got the wiper blade, I installed it myself to make sure it was the correct one. I measured it to confirm that I had been correct. The one wiper blade the dealership sold me last year was the wrong one.

I felt a bit distraught. I had to drive twenty minutes out of my way during rush hour traffic in the rain. All this because one of the dealership’s employees failed to do his/her job. Was that really fair to me? After all, as a customer, the money I spend there goes to cover salaries. Wasn’t this person technically my employee, too? I decided to discuss the situation with one of the managers there.

I asked to see whoever was in charge. The general manager had already left for the day, so they put me in touch with a gentleman I’ll call ‘Jerry.’ I explained what happened.

Jerry made no effort to restrain his overwhelming concern regarding my inconvenience. His eyes glazed over with great interest. I thought I detected a sigh of alarm escape from his lips. When I finished explaining what happened, he leaned back. The overflow of emotion prohibited him from even making eye contact with me. It was like he felt so embarrassed by the employee’s inability to read numbers off a box that he couldn’t bring himself to even make eye contact with me.

After a moment that must have seemed never ending to him, he mustered the courage to make amends for this humiliating oversight. “I apologize. People make mistakes. I’m sorry you had to drive all the way out here. Hopefully, we got it right this time.”

I have to admit, at first I felt a bit disappointed. After all, I had to go totally out of my way to rectify his employee’s “mistake.” I had to use gas I paid for as well as time that I can never recover. Then I reflected on Jerry’s words: “People make mistakes.”

I realized that does happen. How true. And Jerry was “sorry.” Then I thought about the empathy Jerry showed: both to me and his inept employee. Just maybe, I thought, I need to be more like Jerry.

Based on his profound understanding of human error, I’m sure Jerry applies that philosophy to other facets of his life. If either he or someone he loved were injured because a mechanic installed the wrong brakes, he’d chalk that one up to “a mistake.” That’s why pencils have erasers. After all, the part number of the brakes may have been similar. Anyone could’ve gotten it wrong. I know he’d bring the car back to the same mechanic with the understanding that “hopefully” (s)he would get it right on the second try.

I’m also very confident that if a heart surgeon used the wrong suture on either him or someone he loved, Jerry would just call that a “learning experience.” “Suture looks like suture,” I’m sure he’d say. “Anyone could’ve made a mistake pulling it.” Of course, the expression “the surgeon said he was sorry, so everything’s okay” would’ve featured prominently in any subsequent eulogy.

I’ve convinced with metaphysical certainty that if Jerry’s employer shorted him $30 on his paycheck, he would’ve forgone financial remuneration in favor of a sincere, “Sorry” from the department that handles payroll. I have no right to complain about the $30 in parts and gas his employee’s mistake cost me. I received an apology. I accept that with the same gratitude Jerry would have in the situation I described.

Jerry’s empathy deeply touched me. It was truly “special.” I’m sure he and his coworkers will show the same understanding should I decide to go car shopping at one of his competitors next time. After all, if I make the wrong decision, it’s only a “mistake” that costs his company a couple thousand dollars in profits.

Sorry, Jerry.

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