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empathy begins with self reflection: michael at lake tahoe

The Empathy Paradox: Mastering Empathy for Others Begins With Knowing Yourself

Tahoe is my place for self-reflection – where is yours?

By Michael Zakaras

Michael is a writer and strategist who specializes in social entrepreneurship and public policy. He has worked for Ashoka in the United States, Ireland, and Central Europe and has a Master's from the Harvard Kennedy School. He's currently based in New York City.

August 10, 2012

I recently returned from a week at Lake Tahoe, where I’ve spent a piece of every summer with my family since I was five years old. My uncle has a cabin on the lake, and it’s unlike any other house I know because I exist there not only in the present but also in the past. When I'm there, I feel the younger versions of myself accompanying me. On my first dive off the rock, they dive with me, filled with fear and joy and anticipation. I surface in the same bone-chilling water. My brother surfaces beside me. My parents look down from the deck, watching as always. The words permanence and continuity are abstractions. But there, at Tahoe, they come to life.

Tahoe is where I slow down, where I don’t chase things but let them come to me, and where I’ve developed values and ways of being that I have brought back to the rest of my life. It’s where I learned to be fulfilled by living simply: there has never been a TV at the house, and there are no tight schedules or fixed plans. Each part of the day simply eases into the next. We swim and hike and canoe, but most of our hours are filled with communal cooking, leisurely family meals, reading, and storytelling. And there’s an abundance of open time: for listening, for watching, for reflection. I’ll often bring a book and sit between two pines at the water’s edge only to never open it.

In this way, each summer gives me a chance to pull back from my immersion into the everyday world of school or work—of constant activities—and to ask myself what's been really good and what hasn't, and what should be changed. In recent years especially, as a young adult, I've gained a great deal of understanding from these times of quiet reflection. Tahoe serves as a retreat from which I return renewed and replenished for the rest of the year.

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In the end, my uncle’s house is the place where I know myself best. My summers there have helped me look at my life as a whole picture. I take on different roles in the world, but I'm always a son and brother in our family. I can put my latest successes and disappointments into a long-term perspective. I can see how much I've changed with every summer, and I can see how much, for better or worse, I've remained the same.

Empathy is ultimately other-regarding, but I’m convinced that mastering it begins with understanding yourself – your emotions, your desires, your flaws. And for me, it includes understanding how lucky I am to have Tahoe in the first place. In this way, empathy is hard: it takes awareness and perspective. It takes space. But in our world of relentless demands and distractions, it’s far easier to become self-absorbed than self-aware. Which is why it’s essential that we create this space for ourselves – in big ways and small – so that we can use our understanding of ourselves to better understand and serve others.