Humans 101

One Question to Help You Practice Empathy

Instead of simply assuming everyone’s trying their best, ask: ‘What if they’re secretly suffering?’

Jane Park
Human Parts
Published in
7 min readAug 20, 2020
Illustration of a swimming pool ladder going down into the galaxy of a pink person’s mind.
Illustration: dickcraft/Getty Images

When I am angry and irritated by a result I don’t want to accept, remembering to ask, “What if they are trying their best?” usually works to calm my roiling emotional heartburn. But a heated encounter at my community center pool last summer had me thinking about how I can go a step further to ask, “What if they are suffering?” Can “assuming suffering” go beyond just dissipating frustration to actually building a bridge of empathy? And should I extend this kind of personal empathy even to someone who is wielding systemic privilege?

I love swimming because it always makes me feel like I’m on vacation. I equate moving through water with the ultimate indulgence. It’s better than chocolate.

I’d been learning to live in the new reality of my husband’s stage 4 cancer when I ordered myself a one-piece Speedo, swim cap, and goggles, so I could get reacquainted with our local community center pool for some vacation-reminiscent escape. As an additional plus, no one can see or hear you when you sob into pool water.

The etiquette of lap swimming was all new to me, but I could tell by the neat A-frame signs in front of each lane that I wasn’t supposed to jump into the middle lane (labeled “fast”).

I decided to jump into the “medium” lane, but not the far outside lane marked “slow.” That one seemed to be for the older swimmers, and although I feel precocious in this respect these days, I decided I’m not quite ready for that yet.

But I was wrong. Way wrong. By the time I sputtered my way across just one length of the pool, I had been lapped by not one, but two swimmers, and was about to be lapped by the third. I ducked under the lane divider into the “slow” lane to take my rightful place.

In my new lane, I found myself comfortably keeping up with one of the swimmers and faster than two others — one of whom, admittedly, had a cast on her arm and was making her way up and back, holding onto the edge of the pool with her cast in the air like she was royalty waving to her subjects.



Jane Park
Human Parts

Entrepreneur + Essayist. CEO of sustainable gifting company: Speaker, writer: Addicted to making meaning.