I had one of those conversations today. You know, the kind of conversation that changes perspectives and causes you to think differently about things.
While eating lunch in the cafeteria at Tanner Hall on ISU campus, I spoke with my summer boss about some of the difficult things that she has been going through with one of her adult children. She kept saying “no one ever tells you these things until it is too late” over and over in her lament at things that she simply could not control. Her son is struggling with a mental illness of rather severe, and life altering gravity.
My heart reached out to this good woman and her struggling son. In my attempts to convey that I really could never fully understand the struggle she is going through, I thought of the difference between sympathy and empathy. Society today seems full of sympathetic people, people who are willing by definition to feel pity and sorry for you and turn around and go on their way. I do not fault them. Many times I have expressed sympathy out of mere politeness and moved on with my life out of the basic necessity to, you know, “live a normal life.” One cannot always pay 100% of one’s time and attention to every need and misery one finds along the road of life. It would be exhausting and, let’s face it, impossible. There are simply too many people out there who need help for one person to help them all. General sympathy is important and at many times required.
But an altruistic virtue that society needs more of is that of true empathy. The ability to live vicariously in another’s situation and imagine what it must be like on the receiving end of Fortune’s bad side is part of empathy. But true empathy is the desire to take upon oneself the pains, despair, sadness, and hurt of another person. It is a Christian duty as well as a Christlike attribute to take upon oneself another’s burden. As impossible as this really is for people to do, the next best step is for someone to simply try to help in the most compassionate ways possible.
For this woman and her difficulty, I really could do nothing except tell her that I really didn’t know what it would be like to have an adult son with severe mental illness, but I wanted to help, even if all I could do was help her in her job and keep her family in my prayers.
It’s at times like this that I turn my concerns to my eldest son, Jesse. I really do not know what it is like to have A.D.D. or a learning disorder that affects my reading ability. I can’t know. I have to use empathy: imagine what that would be like, how frustrating it would be, how inflicted and alone I would feel. I think that empathy is one of those virtues of parenthood that I need to employ more. I feel that it will draw me closer to my children and help them to trust me better.