A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Only Connect

“Empathy:  the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also :  the capacity for this.”  –Merriam Webster Dictionary
The classroom was crowded with awkward adults and too-small chairs.  Crockpots burbled. The kids, still buzzing with adrenaline after performing the thrilling theatrical portion of the Third Grade Potlatch, were yanking on parental arms, clamoring in parental ears, and falling over each other in their haste to dig into the blatantly-not-Native-Alaskan lunch offerings.
Except for one kid.  She was hunched in her small plastic chair, tears running down her face.
I whispered to my own child, “Why is that little girl crying?”  I’d already intuited the answer -- but I wanted my eight-year-old’s take on the situation. 
My daughter glanced over quickly. “Her dad was supposed to come,” she whispered.  Then she added, unbidden, “Her parents got divorced recently, and I think that makes it extra hard for her.”
I think that makes it extra hard for her.  
Empathy is a concept that seems at once remarkably simple, and yet at the same time fascinatingly complex. It bubbles, iridescent, in the shared laughter of lifelong friends.  It quakes with stage-fright within the young actor’s parents.  It aches at a stranger’s loss. In the wordless glance of lovers, it is the joy and the tremor and the sheer humanity of deep connection: he understands.  
How crucial is empathy, for a child?  For an adult?  For a society? To what degree is it an innate skill, and to what degree is it a learned one?  These questions aren’t new; they’ve been rattling my brain for years.  I’ve wrestled with them when I’ve struggled to connect and communicate with adults who are close to me.  I’ve also spent a lot of time attempting to be a Good Mommy (or at least a Passable Mommy) to two kids who seem to differ wildly in their empathetic responses.
At the age of two, it was already obvious.  One of my twins was quick to sense subtle changes in my mood or her sister’s, and to offer a hug or a pacifier (respectively, that is; my oral fixation isn’t THAT bad.). A friend who regularly babysat my kids -- along with her own -- mentioned that she’d fallen into the habit of using this twin as a helper.  Apparently my toddler was able to understand that her little playmate had trouble walking on our uneven path, and earnestly offered her hand. The other twin… not so much.  “Mine!” was a favorite word in her vocabulary.
Over the subsequent six years, both kids grew and changed.  Both gained social skills.  Both evidenced some degree of generosity and kindness.  But one twin still seemed to struggle much more than her sister did in anticipating, understanding, and responding to the emotions of those around her.  And sometimes I worried.
Now, I whispered back to my young potlatch date, “Well, then, we need to invite her to eat lunch with us.”
“Yes,” my empathetic kid agreed immediately – but not without a tiny tinge of regret. My undivided attention is a rare prize.  Indeed, she and her sister had been thrilled when Jay and I said we would both be able to come to this event.  Jay, I knew, was squashed into a tiny chair in the class across the hall, earnestly balancing a paper plate of dubious delicacies.  Moreover, Crying Child is by no means a close friend to either of my kids.  “Sometimes she just isn’t very nice,” my daughter confided later.  “She says mean things about what I bring in my lunch.”  What?  Third graders scoff at homemade whole-grain bread?  Apparently, Crying Girl is into “pink stuff and TV shows”, rather than leaping in mud puddles, playing FBI Spy, and writing stories about secret portals into outer space. 
At that moment, though, it only mattered that she was a child who needed a grownup.  “Hi there.  I’m Molly’s and Lizzy’s mom.”  Yup, that’s my name.
The little girl looked up at me, tentatively, hopefully.
“Would you like to eat with us?” I asked.
Like magic, the tears disappeared.
Shuffling through the lunch queue, I helped my daughter and Crying Child fill their plates with food. This other kid, as it turned out, was picky.  And loud. Also, she could talk the hind leg off a donkey, a mule, and probably an alpaca, too.  She told me about her pets.  She told me about her father’s diabetes.  She told me everything, in an endless, poorly-modulated soliloquy that precluded all communication with my own child.  Empathizing with this lonely little human was easy -- but being nice to her took more effort.
As I’ve wrangled with how to teach my children to Share, Play Fair, and Not Be Selfish Little Bastards, it has dawned on me that being an empathetic person is not at all the same thing as being a nice person.  I’ve also come to realize that empathy consists of at least three interrelated but distinct components.  Intellectually being able to figure out what others feel (I’ll call this “knowing”) is different from vicariously experiencing emotions (“feeling”). Neither of these is precisely the same as giving a damn (“caring”). 
Cerebral understanding of others’ emotions does not presuppose a loving nature.  Such knowledge can help one figure out the most effective way to be kind, but it can also, alas, help one figure out precisely the most effective way to lie, to cheat, and to be cruel.  Socially maladroit kids are not the ones who morph into the vicious vipers of junior high.  Dictators?  Cult figures?  People who persuade everyone to drink the KoolAid?  A lot of them are masters of knowing-without-caring.
Conversely, it’s entirely possible to have a loving nature (that is, be deeply caring) without readily experiencing the emotions of others, or even being particularly adept at knowing what they are. The love emanating from such a person can sometimes be ill-timed, oddly expressed, or hard to interpret – and thus, sadly, hard to reciprocate -- but it is no less real.
Caring about others is undoubtedly a crucial trait – a society-building trait -- but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t occasionally feel like a burden.  I’d also argue that feeling – wallowing in the external miasma of joy or angst -- isn’t entirely positive. On the plus side, a child who senses the wash of emotions around her may find it easier to make friends and to be the sort of loving and caring soul that every parent wants to see their kid become.  On the other hand, she is also more likely to pick up on every ounce of negativity and every cue of subtle disapproval.  She is more likely to internalize even the tiniest social rules and taboos – including the insidious, nasty, undermining ones that drip through every corner of our culture.  You don’t fit in.  Girls can’t do that. You should be prettier. The socially myopic, on the other hand, may find it easier to be cool with being totally uncool.
At the potlatch, it didn’t take a huge amount of empathy for me to guess that what Crying Child wanted was simply someone to play parent to her right now.  When she helped herself to seven cookies for dessert, I gently told her that she might not feel very good at recess if she ate that many.  She seemed pleased by my interference.  “How about if I put back four?” she asked.  When I told her that this idea showed good judgment, she glowed with pride and rushed to replace the goodies.
As my kids have gotten older, I’ve realized a few things.  First, my less-empathetic two-year-old was actually… pretty normal.  Toddlers are mostly narcissists.  Second, the acquisition of empathy, like pretty much every other talent in the human repertoire, depends neither on pure nature nor on pure nurture, but a blend of both.  Third, even those with an innate talent for empathy may have a lot to learn.
I’ve also had time to think a bit about the possible ramifications of worrying too little – or too much -- about what other people think.  My less empathetic kid sometimes still seems a little me-focused, but she also delights me with her individualism.  Guess which eight-year-old girl would prefer to never, ever bathe; thinks her farts are super-funny; and collects knives?  “I like being awkward”, she told me recently.  She also remarked, as if reporting a delightful discovery, “Sometimes I feel like everybody else’s universe is completely different from mine.”  I kind of love her for that.  But I do try to remind her, gently, to always consider the feelings of others.  Amazing as it may seem, there are actually people who simply do not appreciate the merits of small, grimy, farting, knife-wielding little girls.
I’ve noticed that the more-empathetic kid sometimes buries her own desires, in order to avoid conflict or try to meet the needs of others.  This pipsqueak of a person falls all over herself to make me happy.  I kind of love her for that – it’s hard not to.  But there is always going to be more pain in the world than she – or anyone -- can handle.   As an adult, she may have days, as many of us do, when she just can’t bear to read the New York Times headlines – and that’s okay. I try to teach her that sometimes, it’s good to be different, to be yourself, to make demands.  Sometimes, pissing off other people may actually be the right thing to do – even if your voice shakes.  Sometimes, it’s okay to step out of the shoes of others, and back into your own.  
At home that evening, when I was thanking my potlatch-date for sharing me with her hapless classmate, her twin chimed in unexpectedly.  “That happened in my class, too,” she said.  She named one little boy who had sat alone, crying. Two or three years ago, I thought, this twin would not have noticed – or cared. “But Ben and Sarah’s parents took care of him, and then he was all right.” 
“Yeah,” her sister agreed.  “That’s how it was for us, too.  Everything was all right.”
Those two little crying children, they were all right. 
And my two children?  They were all right, too.