I started my empathy walk from my home in Newhaven. Even before meeting anyone, I noticed how the quality of my experience was different to my usual city walks – more often than not undertaken with a goal of getting to some other place, rendering the walk itself as just a means to an end. But this time I set off feeling open in my heart and in my mind. As I continued, I felt that time took on a new quality. I was not rushing about, trying to get to wherever I was going as quickly as possible, but was noticing and feeling life going on around me. The Ancient Greeks spoke about two different modes of time – chronos, which is our clock time, and kairos, which contains moments that are beyond measurement. I felt that by being open and slowing down, moments of connection opened up. I stopped to watch a seagull that had caught a crab and shared the experience with another couple. I joked with someone as their dog decided to follow me for a while. It felt like there was much more space in my heart for these experiences and encounters and the world just seemed so much more…alive.
I carried on walking through the neighbourhoods of Leith. I noticed a man sat on a bench. He had a newspaper but wasn’t reading it and his eyes seemed to be reaching out to connect. I had the desire to sit with him but a fear arose in me – what if he doesn’t want to talk to me or thinks it is a strange thing to do? I carried on walking and then felt a bit ashamed I had not stopped. As I walked on, I reflected on loneliness in our society and that maybe we all share a little bit of the fear of vulnerability that reaching out and connecting with others entails. I got to the Foot of the Walk. There was a real buzz about and many people came and went. I had more small moments of connection. A woman stopped and was frantically searching through her bag. I asked if she had lost something, but she told me that she was “just making sure everything was ok” and then gave a little dance before walking off. I chatted to a woman from Bulgaria who told me how she works seven days a week selling internet packages and gets sworn at regularly and how she loves to chat to happy people even if they don’t want to buy anything from her. Eventually, I had a longer conversation with an older man on a mobility scooter. He told me about growing up in the area and how he did not like how things were changing in Leith. I asked for him to tell me more and he said that he meant that there were now too many foreign people living here. Instead of trying to persuade him to think differently, I listened as he spoke more about his experience – he lived alone, and hated being by himself in the house. Most of his family and friends had died. He felt that he didn’t belong anymore in the place he had lived for so long. He felt that immigrants were criminals. It is so easy to judge and angrily react to beliefs that are different from our own and that we see as ignorant. But I had a sense that beyond his beliefs, there was a deep sadness and fear at the heart of his story. There was a silence then. Unusually for me, I didn’t feel the need to fill it instantly. Eventually I found myself reflecting aloud “times certainly are changing”. This prompted a whole new and more relaxed level of conversation as it reminded him of a Bob Dylan song. We could laugh a little now, both of us sharing experiences of hearing his music and seeing him in concert. We wondered what Bob would make of the changes taking place around us. This felt like the generative part of our conversation, beyond the empathy to new possibilities – and maybe just enough space to wonder whether change could be something other than what we had been telling ourselves it was.