Empathy, compassion, and a holiday wish

I did not hear of the news at Sandy Hook Elementary until some hours afterward. Friday is Elijah’s day off from school and usually we fill the morning with some sort of adventure-a trip to the SEPTA store or a visit to a museum.

Last Friday, Elijah was sick, so we laid pretty low, other than quick trip to Whole Foods (mostly to allow Elijah to rest for a period of time while we drove). When I finally did hear about what happened, I was almost sickened by how unsurprised and unshocked I have become at hearing news such as this. I feel as a member of society I have become desensitized to all sorts of atrocities. The kind of desensitization that allows me to go about my daily business without even thinking about the genocides, famine, genital mutilation, and other crimes against humanity that I am aware of and have yet to do anything about other than say, “Wow. That is awful. I have to do something about that.”

I don’t actually want to write about the tragedy at Sandy Hook. There is certainly much to say, and I could spend hours discussing why the NRA needs to give me about 25 good reasons a civilian can possess a gun such as the one used in the massacre. I could spend hours more discussing how our country can better address the mental health needs of its citizens and how we all need to take a good, hard look at how we live in this society.

I want to write about empathy and compassion a little closer to home.

Empathy is defined as the capacity to recognize feelings being experienced by another human being. I cannot truly empathize with the feelings of the parents of the Sandy Hook Elementary children who were killed last Friday. What I can do is empathize with my own sick kids, in my home (especially since I eventually developed their illness).

Having sick kids is a drag. Illness is a plan-ruiner, a buzz-killer, yet another reason why we are sleep-deprived. But I found myself being almost thankful that they were (just a little) ill this past week. Not because it meant that they were alive and with me and not the victims of a senseless tragedy (even though I am deeply thankful for this). But because their illness invites the opportunity to exercise these skills of empathy and compassion.

Last year, Elijah awoke one morning and complained, “My throat hurts a little bit.” His eyes teared up a bit, but he seemed otherwise fine. “It’s okay, bud,” I said dismissively. I may have fixed him some tea with extra honey or I may have just continued on with our day. Elijah can be a whiner, and sometimes it is better to change the subject or focus on the positive in hopes he follows suit.

Cut to a few days later when I feel like someone is slicing my own throat with a razorblade everytime I swallow. “Hurting “a little bit” doesn’t begin to describe it. Of course it’s hard to tell with any certainty if Elijah’s sore throat was the same as mine in severity, but I don’t think that’s really the point. Do we sometimes fail to empathize with our little ones simply because they lack the vocabulary or the credibility to suffer as we adults do?

There are few things more grating or annoying than a child whining or crying for “no reason”. Most modern parenting books (and attachment ones in particular) subscribe to the theory that whenever a baby cries it is for a reason; we just have to decipher what it is. I’d like to say I agree wholeheartedly, but for those of us with colicky, high needs infants and toddlers who cried and then whined quite a bit more than average, I will say this: there were times when I’m pretty sure there was no reason (at least none that I could help with) for all that noise. How many opportunities to cultivate compassion and empathy for my own children have I missed because they seem whiny or in a bad mood or fussy for a reason that was indiscernible to me?

When Remy is sick, it’s pretty obvious. When Joe went into her room on Sunday morning, he noticed, “she wasn’t bouncing quite so much,” in reference to the way she hops on her knees in her crib when we enter the room upon waking. She spent a good portion of the morning laying on my chest in butt in the air/knees drawn to chest position or being carried.

I carry the weight of blame for many things that aren’t really in my control, and my kids getting sick is one of them. When they awaken in the night, coughing or calling for me, and I stumble through the darkness, I feel a sense of failure-I didn’t protect them enough from those germs. When my four-year-old says, “I don’t think I’m ever going to feel well again,” my heart breaks a little as I reassure him that he’ll be back to his antics in no time. Of course he’s right, when we are sick, it does seem hard to imagine what it feels like to be well.

In Buddhism there is lots of talk of empathy, of compassion, of lovingkindness (wisdom and compassion are apparently the prereqs to enlightenment). One meditative practice called tonglen involves sending out happiness to others, while taking on their suffering. When my kids were sick, even before I knew about this practice, I did it. I think all parents do. We wish we could draw the coughs from their little bodies or the pains from their heads and take it on ourselves.

In a passage from one of his books, the Dalai Lama writes, “compassion is an aspiration, a state of mind, wanting others to be free from suffering. It’s not passive — it’s not empathy alone — but rather an empathetic altruism that actively strives to free others from suffering. Genuine compassion must have both wisdom and lovingkindness. That is to say, one must understand the nature of the suffering from which we wish to free others (this is wisdom), and one must experience deep intimacy and empathy with other sentient beings (this is lovingkindness).”

It is the active part of compassion that I strive to cultivate, this willingness to bear the pain of others, whether in my home or in the home of another who is suffering. It makes me feel kind of powerful at a time when I actually feel vulnerable: that no matter what, I can choose, in some small (even imagined way), to take on the suffering and pain of others, to lighten someone else’s load. Even if I cannot completely empathize with the situation at hand.

Whether it is arises from empathy, compassion, or some other state of mind, I wish you lightness of heart and spirit these next few days and all throughout the year. Happy holidays.

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