What About Walt?
Most people don’t know this about me, but I was engaged once. We’d been together for several years, and life was wonderful. I found a lovely engagement ring, we met each other’s families, they approved (thankfully), we planned our wedding together, and we even found a cute house to live in.
Then, just a few months before our wedding, everything fell apart. In the middle of dinner one night, while we were at a fancy restaurant, she confessed that she’d been secretly corresponding with some guy who lived in another state. She hadn’t even met this guy, but she wanted to be with him. She handed me her engagement ring, told me that she didn’t deserve me, stood up, and walked out of my life.
I sat there, stunned. What was I supposed to do? Quietly get up and walk out of the restaurant? Ask the waiter for a round of shots? Laugh it off and keep eating? I was devastated. Worse yet, not one person in the world seemed to care….
My friends come to me for help with their relationship conflicts because they see me as a compassionate, but objective, person. They know that I will understand them. At the same time, they also know that I won’t just sit back and let them complain irrationally, whether about a significant other, a friend, a coworker, or even a casual acquaintance. I will always try to see the situation from the “other side” and only offer advice that is sympathetic and fair to everyone involved. Call me Judge Judy.
In psychology, conditions such as narcissism and antisocial personality disorder are characterized by an inability to feel sympathy. Now, I’d like to think that most people wouldn’t want to be branded narcissistic or antisocial. I also believe in the inherent compassion of humans—or most humans, anyway. So really, it’s not all that hard to learn to be sympathetic of others. It starts with us asking ourselves, “how does the other person feel right now?”
I wanted to share my engagement story because I’m hoping that you can sympathize. By telling you about the breakup from my perspective, I’m looking not for your pity, but for a simple understanding of how painful the experience was. See, it’s easy to be sympathetic when someone shares a personal story with you, right?
Because I have a confession to make. I was never engaged. The story I told never actually happened. It is, however, the movie Sleepless in Seattle, as told from Walter’s perspective. Now, in case you never saw the movie, whether because you dislike chick flicks or because you, well, didn’t grow up in the ‘90s, here’s a brief synopsis: Annie (Meg Ryan) is engaged to Walter (Bill Pullman), whose only fault is that he’s a tad on the bland side. At the movie’s climax, Annie ditches Walter at a fancy restaurant in order to meet up with Sam (Tom Hanks). In typical Hollywood fashion, the movie cuts from Annie standing up at the restaurant to her running through the streets of New York, catching up to Sam without breaking a sweat, just in time for them to meet and supposedly live happily ever after. We never find out what happens to Walter.
Romantic as this movie may be, it’s also the perfect example of neglectful sympathy. As I watched Annie running through the streets, I thought to myself, “well, that really sucked for Walter.” Nobody else seemed to care, though. They were too busy rooting for Annie and Sam and letting out a collective sigh of relief when the two finally meet. Still, were they to hear Walter’s story, as I offer it here, most people would probably feel sympathy for him.
And this, to me, represents the shortsightedness that so many people in this world have confined themselves to. The average movie watcher isn’t going to sympathize with Walter because Sleepless in Seattle isn’t his story, and people only tend to sympathize when they hear someone’s story first-hand. Well, the real world contains everyone’s stories, they’re all playing out in a simultaneous cacophony, and most of them will never be told to us directly. To that end, before we can even begin to feel sympathy, we have to listen actively for other people’s stories. It begins with us acknowledging to ourselves, “hey, there’s someone else here whose feelings we should consider.”
So, if you agree that sympathy is an important quality, but if you also never bothered to think about Walter before, then I ask you to start paying closer attention to those around you. The next time you’re having problems with a significant other, or even if you’re just listening to a friend complain about the person they’re dating, try to look at the situation from all sides and hear everyone’s stories. And always remember to ask, “what about Walt?”
I believe that’s how we can all learn to be a little more sympathetic.