How Alex Woodard is Building a Culture of Empathy

Sometimes it helps to see the world through the eyes of others.

Alex Woodard has just completed the third installation of a three-part book and album combination series called For The Sender, including the most recent For the Sender: Love Letters from Vietnam, which received rave reviews, including reviews from Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. Part of the reason is Woodard’s novel approach – he wrote songs based on letters sent to him by his fans about their personal experiences.

In order to accomplish this, Woodard needed to understand the world from the perspective of his fans and their loved ones who often faced horrible life events such as death and war. And in doing so, Woodard shows us that having empathy not only helps others, but also inspires us to grow rather than wither from tragedy.

Perspective-taking is the extent to which an individual can perceive the world from another person’s viewpoint. This is considered a critical skill in developing empathy, the ability to understand what someone else is feeling, which is considered to be crucial to human interactions, including personal and professional relationships. As an example, one longitudinal study of more than 100 couples found that higher levels of empathy predict better marriage quality, in part because empathic people are more likely to be forgiving.

For Woodard, the path towards seeing the world more from the perspective of others came on the heels of perhaps the lowest point of his personal and professional life. He told me, “I’d been at this singer-songwriter gig for a lot of years and had some success to keep on going. But in this particular summer, my record deal fell apart because my record company was owned by Tower Records. Tower is obviously no longer around – they went bankrupt.”

That same summer, Woodard’s dog died. “And then I had lost my best friend – a black lab. And that dog had been on the road with me for all those years; a solid ten, twelve years at least.”

With these losses, Woodard felt very empty and began to question his music career. “I’d been pushing myself for so long, right? When you’re in that business you’re selling yourself. You’re selling your songs and your face and your voice so to speak. And it all felt like it had been for nothing.”

While Woodard was in the depths of his despair, he received a letter from a fan named Emily. She was moved by the way he shared his personal stories through his music and decided to share her personal story with him. Woodard explained, “She felt like my songs were pieces of myself that I was getting out to the world. And she wanted to give me something in return,” he said.

Emily explained how she had written annual letters to her deceased spouse over the past four or five years since his death. Woodard explained, “And so with this note to me she included this letter that she had written to her soulmate, which she does every year since he’d passed away and she’d leave it in a special place…It wasn’t a sad letter per se. It was a ‘Hey, here’s what’s going on with me. This is what I’ve done this past year and I miss you and I hope that you’re alright wherever you are.”

Woodard was moved and shared the letter with other musician friends. “It was so beautiful that I showed it to my friend Sean Watkins and we wrote a song together about that letter. And we called it ‘For the Sender’ because there’s a line in the song that says, ‘For every year I write you this letter; but like a prayer, it’s more for the sender.’

Woodard explained the rationale behind the naming of the song. He said, “Because a lot of what we do – be it letters or songs – whatever we’re giving to other people generally – we’re doing it more for ourselves. And that’s not necessarily selfish – that’s the case for this letter. She’s writing it for herself because the guy is no longer around.”

As time went on, he received more letters from this fan and other and he began collaborating with his friends on songs. “I did the singer songwriter thing and it’s mostly your own stuff – your own stories, your own pain. And maybe someone connects to that because they’ve felt the same pain, anger, joy – whatever. Once I let go of that and made it about somebody else, this whole world opened up,” he said. “Because I liked the feeling of doing something for someone else and it wasn’t about me anymore. It wasn’t my story.”

“And it was so liberating for me.”

Woodard perpetuated the cycle of giving by sending the songs out to both fans and others in the community. “I figured, as a thank you, I would just wrap the back stories and my stories a little bit through the letters and put them into a package and give them to the people who sent me the letters as a thank you. And I didn’t know what it was – was it an album? Was it some kind of concert thing? Was it a book? It ended up being all three. And before I knew it, I had this three book/album deal.”

The first book and album, Four Letters, Twelve Songs, One Story, examined Emily’s letters and opened Woodard up to seeing the world from the perspective of others. In his second book, Love is (Not a Feeling), he explored letters from people who went out of their way to help others in need, including the story of a man who carries his dying friend home. A boy who takes a bullet for his classmates and a father with brain cancer helping his son fulfill a dream. And it was there that Woodard began to realize that understanding wasn’t enough – he felt that he needed to act.

“In the second book that’s the focus – it’s what you do that matters. For me the doing was writing songs about other people’s stories to make them feel better. That’s how my empathy materialized.”

And he put this ethos into action in his third book, Love Letters from Vietnam, that helped Woodard understand how the For the Sender Project truly impacted him. “I realized what this whole project was about once I finished this third book that was dealing a lot with veterans and men and women coming back and not finding the services they need, sometimes finding what they need in creative ways and doing something amazing with it. Playing the cards they were dealt.”

Woodard accurately assessed the severity of the problem facing veterans. Many veterans face a range of physical and mental health issues, such as traumatic brain injury, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. These issues are often compounded by difficulty finding employment and associated financial stress. More, veterans and their families often do not have adequate health insurance and often do not have access to care.

Part of the reason Woodard may have had such a powerful experience with his third book and album was his depth of preparation. “The latest one wasn’t as liberating. I realized after reading correspondence that was just incredible between this daughter back in time to her dad who was in Vietnam. What I realized was when I tried to write songs about that, especially about the soldier, I had no idea what that was. I didn’t know anything really about war or about the Vietnam War in particular or that era.”

“So I sat down on the couch and needed to pick at the guitar a little bit – and I couldn’t do it.”

Woodard sought out experiences that would help better prepare him for his work. “I felt a responsibility to know more. I felt so ignorant. So for me to honor that the best way that I could, I felt that I needed to learn everything that I could. And I said I owed it to this soldier, to all these other veterans that have come back from all these wars to know what the hell – kind of –I’m talking about.”

This increased Woodard’s interest in the history of American soldiers in general. “When I started getting into it I realized – not just Vietnam – way back – in all of our wars these people have fought to protect my freedom to be ignorant,” Woodard said. “They’ve done it so I don’t really have to know the horrors and I don’t have to know what they’ve been through because they’ve made that sacrifice. And so that was a big part of this process for me. I spent a lot of time and energy in trying to learn as much as I could about them so I could honor those letters and him.”

“So I spent a solid month and a half just researching it – the Vietnam War in particular. Researching that and the time, the era – 1968 – that was when these letters were coming from Vietnam to East Texas. Because I wanted to know as much as I could about that. I put myself as deep as I could into other people who were part of that era so I could write better from the perspective of this soldier.”

“If I’m going to be singing from his heart, I want to be sure that I’m doing it with as much accuracy and empathy and information as I could possibly muster.”

Woodard’s experience with Love Letters from Vietnam was more powerful because of this research. “That was the first time I had done anything like that. With all of these other letters I had gotten enough from the letter,” he said. “Where I can feel what this person was feeling and I can put that into a song or into some kind of prose.”

And that was when Woodard recognized an important lesson from all three “For the Sender” projects – people were coping with tragedy in innovative and creative ways.

Woodard explained, “I’ve written about people coming out of the ashes. But it never really hit me until this third book. I realized that this whole project was about the idea that there can be something post-traumatic other than a disorder. Because all of these letters over all these years were about people going through a traumatic event but then doing something incredible out of it.”

“For me, in the third novel it revolved around surfing, horses and dogs, because those are my passions. I found outlets where veterans were using those things both in traditional senses through programs and non-traditional senses, just on their own, to heal. But I started volunteering – without saying much. I didn’t talk a lot – just went and did this stuff.”

As Woodard began to understand the profound nature of the struggle facing veterans and their attempts at coping, he began to also realize that many people did not have empathy for our soldiers. This did not sit well with Woodard.

He explained, “One of the things that triggered me when I started looking into this was looking online about the Vietnam War and scrolling down the comments section and seeing what they say and how they say it behind these aliases they create where they don’t have to be accountable. And how angry and attacking they are. That’s the opposite of empathy. The vitriol is incredible.”

From Woodard’s perspective, this vitriol often rises from a sense of entitlement. “The sense of entitlement is what gets in the way most of the time. Because people feel that it’s about ‘me.’ One of the beautiful things about the internet is one of the most ugly things about the internet. Which is that it gives everybody a voice. You don’t deserve a voice if this is how you are going to be. If you don’t put your name up there and just hide behind a screen and don’t contribute anything to the world.”

That said, Woodard still finds a way to feel empathy for those who he feels are cruel to others. “When somebody is an asshole, you recognize they’re an asshole. But I also think about what kind of burden is that person carrying,” he explained. “That person has something else going on other than being a jerk right now. There’s something else happening. And we don’t always know people’s stories; the guy on line at the airport, or the guy who cut you off on the freeway. It doesn’t make them cutting you off right, but they may be cutting you off because they are going to a funeral and they’re late. Who knows? You don’t know.”

Woodard hopes that we create more of a culture by which empathic behavior is rewarded. He said, “What we are talking about is a culture of empathy that’s sorely missing. I kind of wonder if empathy is looked at as weakness and people don’t want to be weak.

But somehow our ability to be empathetic to others – we just don’t honor it in society. We don’t respect it. We don’t get paid for it. We don’t get awards. We don’t get recognition.”

Ultimately, Woodard feels that he has learned the gift of empathizing and helping others as something that has helped him grow. “I told my story in the first book. But it really wasn’t about me anymore. And I let go of so much, especially in the first iteration of the project… It was kind of like taking your hand off the wheel a little bit and letting go. You let go of the self.”

“And when you let go of the self, incredible things happen.”