Tag Archives: Empathy

Taken for Granted

More than anything in the world I’m grateful that we will have pizza this week. And vegetables. Fresh and frozen, canned. Whatever. I’m grateful that we know with near certainty that we won’t spend a minute thinking about whether or not we can eat.

I don’t always appreciate how safe I am. I lie in the dark and wonder if I left a lock unturned. I wonder if that was someone downstairs. I think about what is nearby that i could use to club a potential burglar or worse. Then I wait and wait and I forget about it and I go back to distracting myself with pictures of family and tales of struggle and memes that make me laugh. I watch highlights and listen to comedians interview each other on podcasts that I hear on my phone which can access, essentially, all human knowledge. I do all of it knowing I am not likely to have war greet me at the door. My children are not likely to learn the worst of life until they are ‘ready’ and then they will do so through books and movies and lessons and not life. I know the further out I project the less sure I can be of these things, but I’m confident.

I see pictures of children who are being greeted by a world that is roiling with chaos and violence the likes of which I can’t even truly imagine without a sheen of Hollywood staging and two dimensional falsehoods that are stored in my brain as images of war. Then a picture will turn up in the news of a child, a toddler, old enough to process but not enough to understand, if there is such an age, why the men are killing everyone, why these bombs are coming for them and I fall to pieces. I question everything. I wonder why I’m not doing more.

I didn’t know the gut punch of these pictures, these images until I had my boys. Until I had the identity of a parent. I could Identify tragedy, yes, but I feel it so very viscerally now. I see the confusion and fear and courage and bravery on the faces of children enduring war and I shutter at what they know. No 4 or 5 year old should know what these children know. I fall to pieces.

I don’t appreciate how good I have it and I never will. But at times it becomes starkly real when I see the world I’m protected from. The world I continue to place safely out of view. One I care about, want to change but am determined to not see. I don’t think this makes me a bad person, relatively speaking. Relatively speaking I’m fine. But I’m also selfishly and honestly and determinedly invested in keeping my boys out of those pictures. Out of harms way. Safe in this place where even the greatest tragedies, thus far are little more than inconveniences and mild disappointments when seen in the grand scheme of things.

I wish I was better than I am. I wish you were. I wish anyone who could would walk into hell and walk these children and their families out. I’d be so incredibly happy to help them, from here.

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The Boys on the Trampoline

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I can’t begin to express how much I love this picture. I love that the tips of the pine are a lighter green, early spring and new. I love the underbrush, rich, lush and untamed. I love the slide you so long ago conquered now used solely as a ladder to a bigger kids toy. I love the soccer ball alone under the slide. Mostly I love the two of you, sitting with your backs to the house, both looking out and talking without us there.

I know that you’re saying things of no immediate import. Maybe Teddy is asking a question of you, Charlie, something he’s curious about. Maybe Charlie is imagining your boundryless stories that you offer in real time, words barely outpacing your synapses as you get yourself excited by the places your brain can take you, Teddy. Maybe you’re just taking a breather. 

Part of what I feel when I see this is a certain loneliness. It’s mine. It’s the kind many men feel as far as I can tell. Many people I should say. It’s a little scary to me because I’m seeing the seeds of future states these days in ways where I can’t help but project onto you my experience. The truth is I look at this and the first feeling is hope. Hope that you both will know how much you are loved. Hope that you will love each other. Hope that you will endure whatever is out there that we can’t see, that you will have to figure out. Hope that you’ll have empathy for each other and for yourselves. 

It’s easy these days to lose sight of what’s important. We live in an area and I daresay a time when parents are a bit too involved in the process of raising kids. It’s not a criticism, it just seems that way. There is so much being emphasized on the important things that aren’t all that important. Homework in kindergarten seems a harbinger of a severely out of whack system. I want you to learn that love and kindness and empathy are the best protection you have. I want you to know how to be loved and how to love. I don’t really care if you aren’t hitting milestones or excelling in the way you should be. I want you to learn to look inside for validation. I want you alone to determine what makes you happy. I want you to have extraordinary lives, not necesarrily over or overtly successful one’s. I want you to know how much is enough and to be grateful that you have it.

As you sit there side by side I want you to know that that is home. When you are 18 and 16 and one is going to college and one is staying I want you to feel the pain of loss but know you won’t be alone. When hearts are broken in minor and major ways I want you to sit on a bench like you are in this trampoline and just be brothers. I want you to be better at family than I am and I think you already are. 

You are our little boys and we will be here to protect you for what feels like forever to those two little boys in the trampoline. But watching you there together I can’t help but yearn for a snow globe to descend from above, covering you and us and our home and our yard and stopping it all from moving forward. 

I remember fifteen years ago like it was yesterday and time is only slipping faster from this particular vantage point. in a blink you’ll both be in your 20’s and I’ll be nearing 60. I’ll give you all the wisdom I can mine within me and I’ll keep searching and scraping for more, but when it fails, and it will one way or another, always remember that you have each other. 

None of life is guaranteed except for yesterdays. Collect as many as you can and hold them as long as you can. For me I’ll add this sight of you two figuring out life together from the comfort of your backyard and I will feel very lucky that I get to know you. 

To Exercise Virtue

‘Courage is the most important of all the virtues because without it you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.’ -Maya Angelou

I’m thinking a lot about this quote and the idea it contains today.

Last night we elected a man to lead our country who I find to be dangerous. And I’m a white, middle class male. I can’t imagine the fear that my darker skinned brothers and sisters are feeling right now. I identify with them and I agree with them and I vote with them, but I am disciplined in acknowledging always that I am not in their shoes. I cannot have their perspective, even if I empathize with it. I am not the father of little girls nor am I a woman. I’m a native English speaking American and don’t have to fear being rounded up. I advocate for the disabled, both professionally and personally and I’m not them, watching a man openly mock an actual person with a disability, bullying him while doing his job from the podium with flags flying and crowds cheering and guffawing. I’m an advocate, but I’m protected.

I’m from the disaffected, largely white area of the country that would appear to have given the Presidency to Donald Trump. I know that the people that voted for him see something other than a dangerous, white supremacist, misogynistic monster. From my angle I’m afraid that that thing they saw allowed them to think they were supporting someone of virtue. Someone who would prioritize them without hurting others. I fear that they similarly can’t see what this feels like to fellow, hard working Americans with skin darker than theirs. Or the hard working immigrant families who’ve sacrificed whole lives, whole histories and all social standing to come to the place where hope lived only to find it lead by a man threatening to deport, insisting on building a wall and enthusiastically able to belittle and dismiss the sacrifice of families who’ve lost loved ones in defense of our highest ideals.

I don’t have any idea what I can do but stand up and try to find a sliver of light in the dark where I can try to send love through. It’s hard to listen when you are afraid. I am afraid. But it’s incredibly important to listen. I will try. I’m pretty sure I’ll fail a lot of the time, but i will keep trying.

What I do see is there is a lot of anger. There is a lot of fear. The air has been thick with it for years. My instincts in this moment are awful. I want to scream. I want to yell and lash out and blanket the land in judgment. It would feel good to do that. The fights that would ensue would make me feel like I was doing something. But I’d be working against the solutions we need. The fact is that this is a time that demands virtue. You can’t defeat the dark without light. You can’t address fear with fear. Anger will not go away with louder anger.

Patience. Love. Understanding. Compassion. Empathy.

These are the virtues we are lacking. There are real world problems that require real world answers. Yes. But if we can’t hear each other, if we can’t understand and empathize with the real fears than we can’t even begin the difficult conversations we need to have. We can’t ever learn to understand why something so confounding, how something so terrifying ever could have happened. I’m scared, I truly am. For me to overcome it’s going to take courage. It’s going to take courage to be patient. To listen. To try to reseed humanity, whatever tiny little portion of it I can effect with love.

There’s work to do. We must shine light into darkness. We must stay curious. We must seek out hate and counter it with love. We must find fear and meet it with empathy. We must meet anger head on and do whatever we can to show people compassion and love.

We must have courage and exercise our virtues. This is a time for our better angels to reveal themselves.

Life, Death, Me and Kevin Smith

Kevin Smith is many things. Many of which might make it hard for someone to see his humanity. He’s a famous person, which seems to be enough of a reason for many to dismiss someone as a thinking, breathing, feeling person with 99.9% in common with the rest of us. He’s an artist as well, producing art and putting it in the world, another reason for people to feel not only dismissive of one’s humanity but entitled to say cruel things about something that a person clearly has put out as an extension of at least a part of themself. He’s also a vulgarian, a trait many of us find endearing but one that alienates many, I’m sure.

Whatever else he is he is also human. And tonight, while I was doing the dishes and listening to him eulogize his dear friend and colleague, Alan Rickman, I found myself crying. Tears falling and breath heaving in fits and starts as I listened to someone processing publicly, generously, their feelings of loss, their sadness and perhaps something so universal and personal as mortality.

Much of what I write about here is parenthood. I find it to be an experience that provides, amongst so many profound and beautiful and human things, a bridge to connectedness. I’m not a dogmatic believer and I’m not one prone to much magical thinking. What I am, like Mr. Smith, like you and like my kids and yours, is human.

One of the things I’ve learned with age is that humanity is capable of inspiring wonderment and awe. It can summon it’s natural state of curious sentience and without intending to draw out an emotional response from me, one that can take my breath away and instill emotion in me that can circle and swirl throughout my being and bring tears that I have no control over. I know that we are merely actors on a tiny stage in a giant universe and too often we can overestimate our capacity to know what meaning there is. What is not lost on us is love and death. The rest we get wrong a lot. But love and death, well, they amount to meaning to me. Meaning I can’t and don’t want to analyze or understand fully. Meaning that I want to live in and die amongst.

It’s strange to be in my 40’s with such young kids. I didn’t plan it this way, at least not from the start. But now that I’m here I’m privy to so much of life. Every day I revel in the world my children are discovering. Worlds full of what I’d mistakenly come to think of as ordinary and mundane before they retrained me. They are able to reintroduce me to the world and are able to reignite within me the spark of curiosity, the fire of creativity. They move me to joy and deliver an endless bounty of love to my life in between testing me by walking me to frustration and even occasionally nudging me toward rage. At the same time it’s a time of life when I can’t help but notice mortality. It’s creeping in at the edges of my life and it’s a present reality in the day to day lives of so many people I care about. I have visions of my parents at my own kids graduations and weddings and even holding their great grandkids someday. I can even imagine them at my funeral, one where I’m being interred at a ripe old age having died of too much life. I can imagine myself dying. That seems natural to me. But even in my minds eye I see my parents there looking down lovingly on me, happy to have known me, sad I won’t be around anymore. It’s crazy, but it’s true. Because I live in denial and fear, the knowledge, like so many of the rest of us do, those of us still able to hug our parents and tell them that we love them, that a day will come when my world will die and it will be at once the most natural and human experience one can imagine and it will also be the most devastatingly painful reality I can conceive of while still being able to live.

I cried tonight listening to someone share what it means to be human. When I was younger I couldn’t cry. Now I can and I do. If I’m really moved it’s like a fit of uproarious laughter. I can’t control it. I can stop thinking about the funny thing, but eventually I have to think of it again, and when I do, the tears and gut busting roars of laughter come right back and they won’t go until they are done, regardless of my schedule. It’s kind of wonderful. Likewise, feeling the pain, or sorrow, or whatever emotion it is that emanates from others when they are hurting also arrives and departs on it’s own schedule. This empathy is meaning to me. It’s a style of connecting and it’s redemptively human. It’s why we grieve communally. It’s how we express respect. It’s how we honor each other. It’s how we share humanity. ┬áIt’s empathy and it’s what keeps us together and unites us in the end. We all can empathize with loss. We all will succumb to mortality and if we are all lucky we will all know love in many forms.

Kevin Smith lost a friend last month. A dear friend and each and everyone of us knows what that means. It is what makes us special. It’s what makes our lives have meaning.

I am so very sorry for your loss, Mr. Smith. I hope that in time you will be able to tell the stories of your friend and feel at least an ounce of comfort in feeling his presence again and having a laugh with him, or even a cry, from time to time.