I recently attended a parent seminar on empathy. Here is the Cliff Notes version: empathy is feeling with someone while sympathy is feeling for someone.
Here’s one way to think about it. Sympathy is what’s on display in a funeral home. While it has a place in our human experience, it’s the short game. Empathy is what happens after a loss, when someone comes into your home, fixes you a cup of tea, and listens to your ongoing struggle. It’s the long game and results in close connection with other people.
Just the other week, I experienced the lesson in a personal way.
I often struggle to make decisions about content for this blog. I want to be a positive presence on the web and post things that are encouraging to others. As a parent, I must also take into account my children’s feelings about their life events. On more then one occasion, a kid has expressly forbidden my sharing something with this online audience. I respect that. Finally, I don’t want to give the impression that we live a perfectly curated life or that I have everything together over here. All of my ducks are not in a row. I may even be missing a couple.
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So it’s a fine balance between sharing and over sharing. And with choosing the right tone. I made a decision from the very beginning to tell my stories with verbal flare. But always with a completely honest streak. Those Johnny vignettes are for real.
Life has been hard this past year for a variety of reasons. Some of those reasons are mundane which comes with raising many children across different ages. Some are because we are facing significant challenges with no apparent answers. Many days it has been a slog with no finish line in sight. It reminds me of my last days in the NICU with Becky, when it seemed she would never come home.
Recently I found myself at a breaking point. I try to keep it together at home, believing my kids deserve a well-balanced parent. My mileage varies on this. Trust me, they’ve seen plenty of emotion from me, from every part of the spectrum. Happiness. Sadness. Anger. But on this particular evening, I felt great despair and a sense of crushing darkness. So I went for a drive and planned to pick up a few items at CVS.
As I cruised down the road, the emotion came in waves. I couldn’t handle the tears and the traffic together. So I pulled into the parking lot at a local park and began to sob. In these moments, I always reach out for my parents. Thankfully, Mom answered the phone. She immediately sensed that something was wrong. Through ugly crying I began in fits and starts. Then the dam broke and it all came out, a flash flood of emotions and incongruent reflections on my life. Do you know what my mom said?
It was exactly what I needed.
I droned on for a bit, flipping between situations and making extreme statements. And then an image came to mind. “Mom, I feel like I’m trying to climb Mount Everest. In a pair of flip flops. I just can’t do it. The elements are too harsh. The challenges too hard. I can’t get any air.”
Eventually, she spoke up, her gentle voice almost whispering into the phone, “It’s not how it’s supposed to be. And, of course, you are feeling overwhelmed. That makes complete sense.”
My mom, who has been gifted with many, many words, had distilled her thoughts into a wise set of statements. This video perfectly depicts this moment.
Mom’s validation of my emotion encouraged me and brought another image to mind. “It’s like I’m playing a hand of euchre. And I have an awesome hand in hearts. And then after the first trick, someone tells me that we are actually playing the round in spades. And I don’t have a single one. I’ve got nothing to contribute and no way to win.”
Mom continued to listen and I calmed down as I ran out of emotional steam. As the conversation ended she reminded me of her love and continued prayers. I hung up and went on my way to CVS, losing myself in routine shopping for bandaids, diapers, and mouthwash.
Mom had wrapped the gift of empathy around me, reminding me that I am not alone. She didn’t correct my viewpoint or fill the conversation with “at least” statements. She didn’t dismiss my pain or promise an uncertain future of happiness. She didn’t offer any advice but sat with me as I felt countless emotions.
As a parent myself, I imagine this moment must have been challenging for her. Perhaps she felt useless as she was unable to change my circumstances or offer a quick fix. Maybe she felt she hadn’t done anything to help. In reality, she gave me the encouragement I needed to keep moving forward. At least to CVS.
We live in a technologically connected world that often drives people apart. Perhaps many of us spend too much time observing other people from the safe distance of a screen. It takes time to empathize with others and it costs us moments of levity and pleasure.
But climbing into the hole with them can make a world of difference. And result in the most sacred of moments.