Some hereos of empathy and how it helps to understand culture

Expats in Costa Rica, like elsewhere, are given stereotypical definitions, sometimes sympathetic, but usually unflattering, handy sobriquets that point out their worst side like “ugly American” or “arrogant French,” “inscrutable Chinese,” etc. I won’t go on because I am sure I will get into trouble. However, I do recall once being told that a Canadian was someone who smiled even when there was no reason to.

Lately there has been little in most of the world to smile about. Where there are no wars, there are floods or droughts, uncontrolled fires, rampant crime or just plain hunger. People who are hit by one disaster or another complain and blame others, feel victimized and just want to get back to the way things were before their misfortune.

At one point during the Sandy hurricane a reporter on the scene in New York said that it looked like a war zone. That comment prompted me to wonder if anyone hit by the hurricane could step back and think “Yes, it is like a war zone, and this is what people went through in the Iraq war and the war in Afghanistan and are going through in the Syrian civil war day after day.” But that is rare. The ability to empathize even in a like situation is rare, and those who have said “We lost our house, but we still have what is important — ourselves” have my admiration. The idea of empathizing with Mother Nature and what has been done to her (thus, perhaps her revenge), is unthinkable, some would even find, laughable.

And this is where I want to pay tribute to Grace McCracken and Tim Gormley, two Canadians who recently came to Costa Rica for a week’s vacation. Their story was reported by Connie Foss and the paper’s staff on Page Four of last Monday’s A.M. Costa Rica.

Shortly after the couple arrived at the house they had rented near Puerto Viejo, they went out to take some photos of the beaches, and in the short time they were gone, robbers entered their house and stole everything with resale value in the unlocked house: cash, new electronic pads, camera, their passports and credit cards. At first, they were shaken up and disbelieving as most people would be, but then they took a philosophical and good humored view.

Recovering her sense of humor faster than I could, Ms. McCracken said, “We see this as a sort of tourist tax.”

They left Costa Rica saying they had enjoyed themselves, even taking some blame for not knowing more about the culture before they came and realizing they should not have brought so much “stuff’ with them and certainly should not have left the house unlocked when they left it, even for a short time. (This is the problem of many tourists wherever they go – they think they are immune to danger or bad things happening.) But the part that surprised me most, even with their own troubles, the couple noted the poverty of many of the people living on the East Coast, Ms McCracken said, “Tourism brings high prices to the area so the local people steal in order to have money to pay these inflated prices.” She added, “We can go home and within a few days make the money to replace what was stolen. But these people here have to live in a tourist economy where it is difficult to survive.”

That is empathy. The dictionary defines it as “the projection of one’s personality into the personality of another in order to understand the other better; the ability to understand another’s emotions.”

Most of this column I was writing in my head while I waited at the Hospital México for an echocardiogram. Two and a quarter hours later on the gurney, or whatever they are called, waiting for the young (incredibly young), but capable doctor to finish the exam, which had been interrupted twice for two emergency exams he had to attend to, I wondered what lesson I could learn from these two unique people.

In the middle of my wondering, I wondered about the doctor. I saw a plastic bag on the desk nearby with two styrofoam containers – obviously his lunch, and from time to time he took some urgent calls on his cell phone. But he had given his careful attention to the two emergency patients, and now to me. By now it was nearly 4 o’clock. I had arrived before 11 a.m. I had no idea how long he had been there.

“Poor you,” I said. “This has been quite a challenging day for you.”

He smiled, and said, “Yes, it has been.”

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