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Empathy is a foundational leadership skill. The ability to understand another’s feelings is integral to understanding how to work with them. It can help you understand what motivates them. Or when they are pushed to their limit and you need to ask less of them. But I am struggling with fear.

Empathy, and its manifestation as kindness, can be in short supply. It’s something that I think about a lot. It requires a lot of listening, as well as sometimes asking, to try to understand how someone else is feeling. It’s groundwork that needs to be done if you want to build trust and strong relationships with your team.

The fear has taken me by surprise though. I’ve started to realize that, as an immigrant as well as someone who has lived outside the States for more than a decade, America seems different from what I expected. This is my second emigration to the U.S. and it looks like I’m having some of the same learning experience as I did the first time: is it me? is it something else?

The U.S. has always been brighter for me. It’s as if someone took a photo from just about anywhere but then turned up the colors a few notches. It’s idealized. I’m a fan, as many immigrants are. And, with fear, it’s as though someone has moved the saturation slider to the far end of the spectrum. The colors are now wrong. The colored elements are themselves distorted.

I am not suggesting Americans are more fearful as a group or even more fearful than Canadians, who live in a nanny state that can over-emphasize caution over common sense. But the ones that are overly fearful remain somehow beyond my ability to understand. I hear what their fear is but I struggle to imagine it, to share it, to be able to empathize.

A Trip to the Zoo

This post came about because of, well, perhaps the last straw is a good way to describe it. As you may know, I like to take photographs. When I leave my home, I almost always have a camera with me. You just never know what you’ll see when you walk out the door.

I recently walked up to Balboa Park from my apartment in downtown San Diego. There was an event in the park. It ended up being not very photogenic and so I had planned to go to the San Diego Zoo as well, which is also in the park. After getting my library cards here in San Diego, a Zoo pass at the County resident rate was one of the first other entry cards I acquired. I love the Zoo.

As I have done every month since I came to San Diego, I approached the main entrance, camera in my right hand, hanging at my side. As I’d walked through Balboa Park, I’d had my camera out. I wrap the camera strap around my hand and have it ready. My finger is near the shutter button and power switch, and it swings along in my hand as I walk. Since I particularly like taking photos of natural subjects, I prefer to have my camera ready rather than miss a butterfly or bird or whatever.

I headed toward the entry gate and started to get my ID and Zoo membership card out. Someone called to me from behind, and then a second time, and I turned around to see a man approach, asking me to stop. He apologized but asked me if I would step to the side and show him the last photo I’d taken on my camera.


It was a very strange request and, in the moment, I did as he asked. As I turned on my camera, he explained that he thought he saw me take a picture of his son. That struck me as suspicious, because I hadn’t raised my camera from my side for about 10 minutes and he couldn’t have been chasing me down for that long, surely.

I tend to game out situations in advance, mentally. For example, if this had been a police officer or security, I have a very different mental model that I would have used in response (“No”). But I was very much taken by surprise. That has given me food for thought too.

It’s fair to say that, by this time, my interest was piqued. I’ve traveled a bit and so was already prepared for a pickpocket attempt or some other sketchy endeavor. But it was a very unlikely place, with as many staff as visitors at the point where I was.

He was flustered and explained that he thought he’d seen my finger touch the shutter button as I swung the camera towards his kid while it was down by my side. In other words, he suggested I was taking surreptitious photos of a child. Stranger danger.

This is what he saw:

An image that appears like a strip of film, with four images, from left, old trestles in water, a heron, a cawing crow, and a duck.
A filmstrip of the most recent photos on my camera as I entered the Zoo

In fact, that day, I’d only taken a photo of a duck on the Balboa Park pond. As I said earlier, the event had not been very photogenic. I’m also not a big fan of taking photos of people as a subject. And I’m nowhere near good enough to take a surreptitious photo of someone with my camera hanging below my waist.

Let’s talk probability of someone taking a photo surreptitiously. Probably not with a DSLR like mine, which are less common and bulky. I usually use 2 hands to aim. And the lens means that it’s clear where I’m pointing. More likely a phone with a camera turned on, which is easier to point and less likely to call attention. More likely someone situated in place – stalking, like a predator, at a funnel point – than wandering randomly. More likely where there isn’t a heavy staff presence, where someone loitering would be more likely to be noticed.

He apologized and explained that his concern was raised because of work he does. That’s an explanation but it doesn’t explain the heightened level of paranoia. And this is where my empathy struggles to stretch. This man was so hyper vigilant it had changed into something I couldn’t recognize. Is it reasonable to assume every person with a camera is taking inappropriate photos? Is it reasonable to assume your child is under threat in every location? When does vigilance become something darker?

I shook my head at the strangeness of it all as he departed and I went through the entry way. I was mostly struck that, whatever his work, he seemed to need some therapy or mental assistance for what I could only perceive as extreme behavior. I wondered about the impact of his behavior on his son. Surely this level of fear is perceptible by children, and a learned behavior? Had he been this vigilant during their entire visit to the Zoo? All day? Every day? What was he exchanging, in life experiences with his son, to be this protective?

It struck me that he might be the sort of parent who’d use surveillance cameras at his home. Both watching and in fear of being watched. Supportive of surveillance because it provides safety but also realizing that, if you are watching, maybe everyone is.

I worry about my partner’s and my own kids all the time. That sort of parental care is something I can connect to. But the extreme nature of this type of concern is just unreachable for me. I don’t understand it. At what point does it become irrational? And what can others do in that situation?

I kept puzzling it through in my head for the rest of the time at the Zoo. I had even asked the man whether his son was the one with the snake? He said no. I had interacted with a boy who was exiting the zoo with his family. As I walked by, the little fellow had held up the rubber snake he appeared to have just received and hissed at me, so I smiled and hissed back. If any parent might have stopped me, it was his parents.

Fear Factor

This was just the latest experience I’d had since moving back to the States. The opera hall that had metal detectors outside before you could enter. The concert venue that banned anything but clear see-through bags and was stricter than airport or courthouse security. The USS Midway, where their ineffectual manual bag search and metal detector missed the lock blade I’d inadvertently left in my backpack, creating security theater. There have been so many experiences of what strikes me as extreme concern. At what point do we equate possibility with probability?

Now, I should note that I’m not a city person. And I was a bit concerned about living in downtown San Diego because of that lack of experience. While I’ve worked in Chicago and Dallas and Little Rock and Cincinnati, we always lived just outside the city or downtown proper. But our eldest child gave me some great advice, as they have lived in a large city while at university. It’s all down to probability.

Also, there are lots of experiences that I haven’t had that could cause extreme emotions. I thought of this when US Army helicopters flew down our street in San Diego the other night without lights, about 200 feet above the ground, for 30 minutes. I expect that was terrifying for people who might have had a war experience and PTSD. I can empathize with that in a way I can’t with the stranger danger Zoo experience.

We see a lot of news about shootings and crime and violence. We hear about conspiracies of pedophiles in pizza parlors and lizard people. Extremes of information are perhaps more likely to be read about. And I’ve posted before about my perception that news apps geared towards an American audience seem to focus on crime news more than other countries.

But do the events portray a universal reality? There have been a number of stabbings and shootings in my neighborhood in the past few months. That sort of news creates a sense of awareness. But for all of that violence, tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of people have traversed those same streets in the same time period. They ate at the same restaurants, bought their groceries, walked their dogs. None of them were harmed. There will be no news about people to whom nothing happens.

The probability, the likelihood, of bad things happening matters. You can choose to avoid certain areas or to stay indoors at certain hours to further reduce the probability. But, whether it’s because lawyers and insurance companies create the need for extreme levels of risk avoidance, or people lose sight of the likelihood of an event happening, some people seem to operate at the extreme end of fear. Risk tolerance and avoidance becomes something more, something less rational.

I have taken our kid’s wisdom to heart. It aligns with another personally held belief, which is that I tend not to worry about things that I cannot do anything about. As Mark Rylance’s character responds to Tom Hank’s character in “The Bridge of Spies,” when asked if he wasn’t worried: “Would it help?” I find that, once you eliminate those things out of your control, you can focus your resources on those things that are.

Also: Vivir con miedo es como vivir a medias.

Anxiety. Fear. Normal emotions. But what happens when their manifestation outstretches your ability to empathize?

Leadership Stumbling Block

If anything, I ended up being worried for a moment about that father. I could imagine, given a father’s protective concern, and deep fear, that some day he will insinuate the wrong thing to the wrong person. And, more importantly, what about the son?

The moment at the Zoo was a spot of clarity for me. I have been struggling to come to grips with this heightened fearfulness that I sense around me in San Diego. I’m an immigrant, for all that I can pass as an American. This takes me back to when I came to the States as a kid and the feeling of being an outsider. It wasn’t really until the last 5 or 10 years that I really understood that that feeling never really leaves you.

One thing you realize as an immigrant is that you can never really be sure whether you are experiencing something the same way as a national is. What may seem strange to me, based on my outsider experience, may seem completely normal or understandable to someone else. And the reverse is the same. Then layer on all of the other experiences. People who live in cities will feel differently about their safety, perhaps, than I would as someone who has led a more suburban life.

Also, glass houses. I know I’m far more paranoid than our kids are when it comes to online security. Some of that is parenting. Some of that is having worked with technology and knowing what’s possible. Some of that is having a brother held hostage by the Russian government and always being in battle mode. I realize that I probably have extreme mindsets that are unreachable by others. It causes me to be very aware not to evangelize what I think is reasonable, because on some level, I know it’s not.

All of this new experience has given me pause. I don’t like feeling like there is a person I can’t empathize with. It has made me evaluate – gut check is perhaps the best term – whether I’m being fair in my own assessments. As a leader, your ability to empathize is foundational. If it becomes miscalibrated, you may find that you are the problem. Are you not listening closely? Are you not being as thoughtful or deliberate or careful as you need to be to understand? What are you missing?

I have worked in other law libraries but I was away from the U.S. for nearly 15 years. I am still not entirely confident that my earlier work experiences apply, either generally or specifically, to San Diego. Each law library staff and workplace is different and I’m still trying to peel apart what makes the difference – the people, the place, the external culture or environment, or my outsider perspective. This confusion outside the workplace has jarred me a bit.

I haven’t got an answer yet. But I have been thinking about it for my work context. A public law library has a higher set of risk factors than many other law libraries. Our law library is not behind any courthouse security. Our staff needs to have an awareness of the higher probability, compared to the courthouse or other contexts, of events that create fear and risk.

If, like me, you start from a different perspective from people like that father at the Zoo, then there is an additional step. It may be that his experience is not reasonable to understand, in the sense of how it exchanges probability for possibility. But also there’s a self-reflection, whether you think I’m naive or pragmatic or exceptionally privileged. There’s obviously a place on that sliding scale towards that father that I do need to be able to share, for the sake of my workplace.

It’s important for me to be open to those concerns and to be able to assess, as a decision-maker, what is operational and what is not. As an outsider, I need to be sensitive to very different outlooks on risk and the resultant anxieties or outright fear they manifest. At the moment, I’m not confident I have this sorted out. But I’m thankful for that father for giving me a particularly sharp experience to contemplate.