I was thinking about empathy this morning. My son and his girlfriend and 4 of their friends stopped by for pancakes after a 10k they were participating in locally. I don’t know why I always make pancakes – probably just eggs and milk would be healthier after a run – but they seem to all enjoy it and leave happily satisfied.

One of the friends is a new introduction for me, a close friend of K. Nice young woman. She recently moved back to the area to be closer to her parents. Her mom is currently undergoing treatment for breast cancer and it is mostly going well. Very stressful situation, and she was extraordinarily grateful for a free meal she did not have to prepare herself. G and his friends are all athletic and thin, so I am hoping she’s just think like K is thin, from burning off her excess calories.

But listening to her talk about her mom, seeing the tears well up in her eyes as she described the chemo she’s enduring and how hard it is to watch her mom suffer, I feel for her. I wish her mom was not ill and she herself is not suffering. I do not remember how it came up – probably because I was eating bacon and eggs only with no pancakes or juice. I told K to bring her by anytime for family dinner night; if she is okay with my cooking I am happy to provide a free meal and respite.

Is that empathy? I read the definition. I hear how the word is used about other people. I feel pained and sad for people who are going through troubling times. But I frequently, seriously doubt how my feelings work. Mostly that’s okay.

People tell me things, talk to me about problems and issues and things they are facing, and it generally falls into two types of conversation: those who are just venting and seeking a non-judgmental listener, and those who are venting, seeking a non-judgmental listener, and seeking brainstorming assistance with their particular issue. The first seems to be feelings-related issues – death, divorce, betrayal, etc. – while the second also include an aspect of practical living – finances, medical treatment, legal advice, etc. I recognize that I am oversimplifying the relationships and conversations/interactions I have with family and friends, but that’s okay for this discussion.

In recent months I have had a lot of both sorts of conversations. M, of course, because we are us and what impacts/affects him has a direct impact/effect on me, and vice versa. My daughter with her ups and downs with her fiance and interactions with his family; my son with his job and school and housing and such. Then there are friends with their marriages, finances, jobs, kids, lives. I am not complaining, because to me this is part of life, part of the richness of having the wonderful network of family and friends. But I sometimes wonder if I am too practical, too pragmatic in the midst of these discussions.

Why do I bring this up today?

I do not feel burned-out by the leaning-in going on in my life. Quite the contrary, I am glad to be someone people think of as a good listener. I am also not especially bothered when people disregard my ideas or advice on how to proceed in resolving their issues; it is their life, their choice, not my place to judge. However, I sense a tendency to turn away from me when their situation does not improve and I have offered some practical suggestions that might have helped. Hey, I get it; we are all individuals and have different tolerances, pride points, etc. I am not an “I told you so” person because it’s rude and bad karma. Quite possibly I am taking sudden silence too personally, or I have grown accustomed to hearing almost daily updates and the lack of communication is like a too abrupt change.

Lately I feel disquieted by a potential lack of empathy. I understand there are billions of circumstances beyond control that affect us; shit happens every single day to all of us. But I am not a person of infinite sympathy – I am human after all – and at some point it seems there should be an uptick for the better or some type of positive change. At that point the question becomes when do we give up? When do we say “enough” and walk away from the bad marriage, take steps to control our enabling of our addicted spouse/children/family/friends, consult an attorney when our debts and financial situation appears hopeless and directly affects our ability to meet life’s most basic needs of food and shelter? As a trusted family member or friend, how do we adjust our attitude and our tone listening to those we love discuss their ongoing troubles?

There are no easy answers, at least not for me. It is not so much a case of a flip switching and I become a “my way or the highway” type Dear Abby, but it is wearying that the same problems recur and it becomes more and more obvious that the solutions applied are not working or are unsustainable until they can be effective. Mostly I hate it when my judgment gene starts itching and flaring to be expressed. I do not want to give up. I do not ever want to be the friend or family member who walks away because I cannot help or be supportive and those I love are not yet ready to admit the need for professional help. I actually admire strength, independence, and confidence. I also know from direct personal experience that hubris can be a barrier to positive solutions.

M still struggles with our decision regarding his younger sister, so much so that he has had to block her phone from calling his. I/we are not quite sure what the issue is there, although we have been speculating about recreational drug use playing into this scenario. Her husband is a recovering heroin addict, although as far as we know he has been clean for many years. For M, for us, the larger picture is that his dad and stepmother and stepmother’s extended family all reenter our life orbit. We have been estranged from them for nearly 3 years, and as peaceful as it has been for us, at his base M loves his father and remains very angry with him. But generally M is relieved to be happy at this distance after the consistency of choices FIL has made and expectations he has always placed upon M. When everything else is said and done, he loves his father, is concerned about his health and well being, and wants the best for him.

The SIL drama reminds M that she is likely spinning tales of our hard-heartedness and unwillingness to help her. I know it is ridiculous to imagine what people we do not even like think about us, but M is human and not 100% perfect in his mental/emotional health and rationality. Plus as much as he dislikes/despises his sister, she is still family, still tribe, and if she is really and truly sick, we do want to help. I know that. M knows that. Even the entire blog readership probably understands that. But the one man M wishes knew and understood our position has probably condemned my sweet and caring husband. Again.

This is not my family, so it is obviously easier for me to be detached and disconnected. However, even when it WAS my family, my childhood circumstances and events and our intertwined life stories made it impossible for me to be attached and connected or care much beyond the normal sympathy felt for a stranger. In this way I recognize that my feelings do not necessarily engage or work in what most would perceive as normal. I choose who I care for and about, and when I make that choice and engage, I am all in and want to be the best friend and family member.

There are no easy answers to life’s biggest problems. The best I hope for in this and other situations like it is understanding, patience, the ability to be non-judgmental, supportive, and comforting. I always want to help, but I recognize my own limitations. And that’s probably my biggest fear: feeling limited and helpless and giving up too soon. Balance, always balance. So hard to express in intellectual terms and dang near impossible to implement practically.

Weighty matters for a Sunday morning and after a perfectly delightful pancake breakfast.

3 thoughts on “Empathy

  1. Well, you certainly mention a lot of different things here, but obviously the is a huge contrast between the SIL and the woman who’s mother is suffering. Both people are suffering, but one is within control the other is not. I think empathy, is something that is given because we can relate and understand what we would do in a similar situation. I know someone that can not maintain a job, if her life depended on it, and she feels I lack empathy. The reality, however, is that I can relate to being without a job, but I think I can exercise a certain amount of control over the situation – i.e. not giving up the job, simply because I don’t like it. I think it is somewhat similar with the SIL…she is choosing the behavior and, therefore, is choosing the consequence. But on the other hand, you have the woman who’s mother is suffering from cancer treatment. The woman didn’t choose to have this happen, so it is vastly different. You CAN comfort her, you have the ability to lessen her pain by inviting her over for dinner. Sadly, you can’t lessen a drug user’s pain…only they can find that answer.

    Good luck to everyone in your family and all of your friends – but I think you can only put effort into those things that will benefit.

    1. Hey, thanks for the very kind comment! My blogging tends to be stream-of-consciousness sort of writing and might be a bunch of tangents all tied together under one vague subject heading. What started today as a pleasant experience with my son and his pals turned into something more. I feel for this young woman and was pleased she felt comfortable enough to talk about what’s going on in her life, but of course it brought out all the other crap we’ve been dealing with all week. Hence the post and wondering on the one hand why people feel comfortable confiding in me (a good thing, I think) and whether I say or do the right by them.

      Totally agree with you on when the level of control over situations rests in our hands. It’s sometimes difficult to know when to say when and step back and say nothing.

      1. Well, there are those people that give of a signal of good heartedness, and you must be one of those people to have others speak so comfortably with you. 🙂

        And yes, there is some difficulty in letting someone drown when they only want to drown you with them…but what is more difficult is recognizing that is the case.

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