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How an Empathy Expert Spends His Sundays

Three years ago, Michael Tennant started a socially conscious marketing agency called Curiosity Lab. For the 2018 midterm elections, the company developed an initiative to combat divisiveness. This led to a card game, Actually Curious. The game generated buzz, even getting a shout-out from Beyoncé.

But Mr. Tennant’s life was soon rocked by tragedy. Last year two of his older brothers died within three months of each other. He decided to hit the road, taking the card game with him, and teaching empathy workshops along the way.

This spring, Mr. Tennant arrived in Florida, just as the country was going into lockdown. He ended up staying with his parents, former New Yorkers who now live in Port Charlotte, in western Florida.

“Over the next three months we just had this really phenomenal, sometimes tumultuous, contact zone around how we express ourselves,” he said. “For me to just have empathy for them was almost like a first step in healing.”

Mr. Tennant, 36, who returned to his home in the East Village of Manhattan in June, has been writing in his journal, meditating and holding virtual empathy workshops ever since. He is living with Caroline Bel-Kher, 30, a creative director who splits her time between New York and Copenhagen.

TARGET THE TENSION I’m usually up by 6 every morning, and I do a 20-minute meditation while I’m still in bed next to my partner, Caroline. I try to avoid screens until after my meditation. I focus on targeting my inner breath toward where my tension is, like my shoulders or chest.

COFFEE, THOUGHTS I used to go out and get coffee from Abraço on East Seventh Street, but lately I make my coffee at home with my French press. As it’s brewing, I’ll move to my living room and pull out my journal and start a kind of free-form writing. Like if, during my meditation, there was something that came up a lot I might journal around that a bit. Any new ideas, anything that’s giving me anxiety, any intentions for the day or week. Usually, while I’m having my coffee I’ll get a few phone calls, I’ll do a family check-in, especially with my parents.

OUTSIDE EARLY I decide what my outside activity will be for the day. On a rainy day, I might go for a bike ride. Or I might choose to go for a long walk. On a day that feels mild I might go for a run. One of the most amazing things about being in the East Village on a Sunday at 8 o’clock in the morning is that it just has a totally different vibe. I live on St. Marks between First and A, which from Thursday to Sunday, it’s hopping at night. But when I’m out early in the morning it just has a different, tranquil light.

RUNNING ROUTE I’ll start off across 10th street and head to Christopher, down to where the street gets funky and over to the West Village water path and take that down. And then I hit Wall Street, Battery Park City, and then up through the Seaport, which actually, that was where my first job that I never got was. I tried to get a job at Guess Jeans when I was 14, and I was kind of introverted. And so I guess they saw that a mile away. And every time I run I just get this little visual of being in that area with my parents.

PROSCIUTTO NOSTALGIA If I get tired, as soon as the app MapMyFitness says six miles, I’ll stop and walk back toward home. I recently found this classic Italian spot called Sanpanino on Hudson Street. It reminded me of being a kid with my dad, who had a shop in Sheepshead Bay. And we would go to this Italian spot and get sandwiches with prosciutto and roasted red peppers. That was the big move for us, so I’ll order that.

EMPATHY WORKOUT When I get home, I hold a virtual Empathy Workout. They’re free and open to all, but we ask people to make a donation to Transparent & Black, a local wellness collective for Black healing. I have different partners and themes each week. We teach people about the different forms of empathy and how awareness of it can be applied to yourself and to others; to understand your own boundaries, and to show up for yourself, but also to recognize your biases.

ADDITIONAL WORKOUT LESSONS It’s also to understand other people’s biases, and how to potentially help them gently arrive at them. Because oftentimes, when you point out people’s biases in a way that’s not gentle, you immediately meet their defenses. Empathy will be important as we get ready to go through what’s going to be a contentious November, with the election, the beginning of a holiday time period like no other, our country’s state of racial unrest and Covid-19.

NOODLES, NETFLIX I’m huge on ramen or pho on a Sunday evening. Caroline and I, we’ll go out if we can, often to this Vietnamese place, Hanoi House on St. Marks. And then it’s back home for Netflix and chill. Sometimes I fall asleep on the couch, and she has to wake me. The good news about developing a practice of letting go and confronting fear, and then applying that on a micro level to confronting my past tendency to procrastinate on a Sunday, means that when I pass out, I’m out.

Sunday Routine readers can follow Michael Tennant on Twitter @MichaelTennant or Instagram @michaeltennantnyc.

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