Wow, can people surprise you, even your kids. 😉
A member of our extended family is battling cancer and going on the rollercoaster ride of treatment, we’ll call him Bubba. He’s several states away and we can’t be there to help him through the doctor’s visits, surgery and chemo/radiation but we’re there in spirit. Martin and I recently told our boys about Bubba’s condition and I’ve been so proud of our younger son, Gus’s, reaction. He wants go visit Bubba, which I thought was sweet since most 16 year olds don’t want to do anything unless it involves their friends and xbox. Plus, Gus wants to shave his head in a show of solidarity. Granted, Gus has a buzz cut already and Martin pretty much shaves his head, too, so head shaving isn’t going to be traumatic, but still. Oh, and Bubba hasn’t started chemo yet, so he still has all of his hair. Details, details.
I thought it took maturity to feel this kind of empathy, the kind of maturity you don’t often see in kids. Shame on me for not having more faith in our wean (Scottish slang for child, kind of an inside joke because it’s a contraction of “wee un”, meaning small, and Gus is 6’3”, the tallest in our family). Empathy is not only for the older-but-wiser crowd, apparently. Empathy is important because it connects us with others; we feel for them, whether it’s joy or sadness; we share in their experience. Empathy is easier when we are close to people, when we trust them, when we want to feel for them. It can be easy to feel empathy for strangers – who doesn’t feel for someone that has had an accident, right? But it can also be much harder to empathize with someone we don’t know or don’t think we want to know. Take that rude jerk that cut you off in traffic and caused an accident. You don’t want to know them because you’re wrapped up on your own feelings. We saw this in action a few years ago. Our oldest son was a new driver and he turned left in front of a pick up truck pulling a trailer, a typical landscaper’s work vehicle, so it was b-i-g, big. Anyway, Dylan pulls in front of this guy, causing an accident. My husband reported that the guy was angry for about 30 seconds, until he realized it was a new driver that hit him. Martin says the guy immediately started telling D that it was all right; everybody has an accident when they’re a new driver. Wasn’t that sweet? We have no idea why this man didn’t go off on a rant about new drivers being, well, pick your adjective. It would have been understandable, the fellow had just had a major problem crop up on what was likely a busy day. Instead, he chose to see the human behind the problem and we will always appreciate that man for his kindness to our son.
So, empathy. It helps us see the person behind the action or label. It helps us connect with others. For me, it is an essential ingredient to being human. I don’t always feel it but the more I practice, the better I am. This goes for our weans, too. Soon, we’ll be off to the barber for a head shaving, happy to do so and isn’t that sayin’ somethin’?
If you’re interested in a great book that showcases empathy, read Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. It’s probably classified as a Young Adult novel but don’t let that fool you. It’s full of leadership lessons and I’ve read it several times in the last 20 years. It’s also scifi, but that’s just context. The story is overwhelmingly about the human condition and how we relate to others. I will always be thankful to a co-worker, Gary Lieberman, for sharing this book with me. If you’re not much of a reader, it’s being made into a movie, due out later this year I believe.