empathy in action
We are driving home from our Mother’s Day trip to our favorite wild hot springs. We’re happy and exhausted, muscles noodly, hair reeking of earthy minerals. We’re listening to Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits on cassette; Col is trying to decode the meaning behind the song Mrs Robinson, alarmed about this line: Most of all you’ve got to hide it from the kids. The clouds are low and dark, dropping a springy mountain mix of hail, snow and rain. Rose is moaning about how nothing went right for her today.
“Nothing, huh?” Dan asks her.
“Nothing,” Rose replies, drawing out this two-syllable word into a sad melody.
We stopped at a super fun park in Dolores on the way home and Rose is mad that we had to leave before she was ready. This disappointment is getting watered by her own tears, sprouting grafted limbs of every other slight of the day.
“And we didn’t get to go to the Absolute Bakery and get a treat and then those other people showed up at the hot springs and I didn’t like that and then I had to leave the park and I never get to go to that park and it’s the funnest park and I didn’t even want to go to those hot springs, I wanted to go to the Pagosa Hot Springs.” (Pronounced: Pagosa Hot Spring-ing-ing-ings”).
Rose has a specific whine-cry, a precise auditory note designed to pluck the strings of my nervous system like an aggressive and psychotic banjo player. It is a sound so jarring, so deeply disturbing that every cell in my body shrieks: do anything necessary to stop that!
Instead, I breathe.
I let Art Garfunkel’s honey voice fill me and then I wade into Rose’s world, armed with layers of empathy.
“Oh honey, what a hard day. You could have played at that park for hours. That is the funnest park! And we didn’t even get treats at the bakery. We always stop there. You love their yummy treats.”
Rose’s whine-cry gets louder.
Trust the process. Breathe. Trust the process.
I don’t mention that we left the park because snow was pounding in on a fierce wind, nor that I made her and Col hot chocolate in travel mugs, knowing the bakery would be closed.
Rose dials up the backseat noise. Claws grip my shoulders.
“That was such a bummer to leave that park,” Dan says. “You’re probably bored with all the Durango parks, and that park is so new and exciting. You could have played for hours.”
He doesn’t mention that he spent 30 minutes chasing Rose up and down the castle stairs, through the equipment, her shrieking with delight. We make no promises to go back another time, nor offer solutions to fix the sadness.
Rose continues to bellow.
“You weren’t ready to leave, but the rest of us were. That feels crappy. Did you love that tire swing so much?”
Rose says, through sniffles, “If I lived in Dolores, I’d have my birthday parties there.”
“For sure,” Dan murmurs.
“Absolutely,” I chime in.
I can feel that the soft fingers of empathy are beginning to massage her wounds.
We empathize with how surprising it was to have others show up at the hot springs, the warm, bubbly pool we’ve always had to ourselves. We acknowledge that she had wanted to go to Pagosa Hot Springs, but had allowed me to choose on Mother’s Day. Another let down.
We don’t mention that she was doing naked springy ecstatic cartwheels in the snow, or that expectations bring suffering, or that these wild hot springs are a great gift that we don’t own or control.
It takes a full half hour for Rose to decelerate out of her disappointment. And even then, it’s a shaky victory, a small jump up the ladder of emotional well-being. For the last half hour of the car ride she and Col play a game in the backseat which brings her alternately to laughter and tears. It is no exaggeration to say I drive that last stretch praying for strength, focusing on my breath, singing along with S & G a little over-enthusiastically, and mustering trust to follow my intuition not to interfere with their game, partially because I am so wrung out, I’m worried that if I open my mouth something ugly will fly out.
After we get home, unpack, shower, and start dinner, Rose flings her small toweled body at Dan and me, and cries, “I love you both so much!”
That night, I lay in bed with Dan and realize three things I am grateful for:
- As much as it took my nervous system a full two hours to shake off the half hour of keening and whining, looking back, I feel great about our day. I have no hangover of regret. There’ve been enough times where I escalate Rose’s sadness by trying to distract her out of it, talk her out of it, or enact some unrelated consequence to get the noise to stop, all of which makes her cry louder, harder and longer. Despite the discomfort of that stretch in the car, I am pleased that I didn’t make it worse. To go to bed free and clear of regret feels wonderful.
- As Natalie noted at the recent workshop, Building an Emotionally Safe Space, when one child receives empathy, it calms everyone in the room (or the car). Not only did all the empathy traveling from front seat to back seat help Col relax, it worked like a boomerang. Dan’s empathy for Rose came right back at me like a hug, like encouragement, mobilizing my next launch of compassionate words for Rose.
- I no longer believe that kids can be “taught” gratitude, i.e. letting them express their disappointment doesn’t create entitled children who can’t be happy for what they have. We all feel disappointment every day. Denying those feelings buries them deeper; acknowledging them allows them to dissipate. I believe the best way to help kids feel gratitude is to model your own gratitude for this wild, messy, imperfect and beloved world.
ps: hope your Mother’s Day was full of love and all the deep breaths needed.