John shares an intimate story about his father that illuminates what empathy means, why it’s important and how it is the key to breaking down barriers.
“Sympathy is easy because it comes from a position of power. Empathy is getting down on your knees and looking someone else in the eye, and realizing that you could be them, and that all that separates you is luck.” – Dennis Lahane.
While on my knees next to my fallen dad last weekend, I thought of this quote.
Dad has been living with the diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease for almost three decades. Over this time, he’s lost the ability to walk, drive, and earn. It’s difficult for my dad to speak and lately, becoming more difficult to swallow.
And yet today, Dad, seated in his trusty wheelchair, is the perfect embodiment of the joy we all wish we possessed.
He’s engaged with those around him. He smiles and laughs easily. He’s grateful for all he has and content with his life. Dad deals with constant pain and is racked with continuous challenges, but he simply refuses to be a victim to his circumstances.
But even as his son, it’s easy to miss the profoundness of his difficulties. When I see Dad, he’s got his khaki pants on, shirt tucked in, hair brushed, and smile on. He makes it look easy.
But with mom away last weekend, I saw firsthand how hard it actually is.
Every single movement is ripe with bit of risk and chance of pain. Due to a torn rotator cuff, he’s unable to use his right arm, which is creating far greater stress on his left arm. Simple activities many of us take for granted – rising from his bed, sitting up, pivoting into a wheelchair, rolling toward the bathroom, getting dressed – require great effort.
I obviously suspected it was hard, but staying with my dad and caring for him in my mother’s absence gave me a totally different understanding.
As we were preparing for bed, I rolled my dad into the bathroom. Helped him change, wash his face, and use the bathroom. As he stood to transfer, Dad lost his balance, I lost my grip, and we both fell. It wasn’t physically painful for either of us, but it was eye opening.
There we were, on a cold tile floor. My sweet dad struggling to get back into the chair. His under-powered son trying to help, but also mindful of sore limbs and cautious not to cause greater injury.
On our hands and knees, we caught our breath. For a long while, we just stared at each other. No words were spoken, none had to be. And perhaps for the first time since my father’s Parkinson’s diagnosis I had sincere, heart-wrenching, eye-opening empathy for what this brave man deals with each day.
Somehow this man who I long to be just like, was even further elevated in mind.
As his caretaker that evening, though, my heart expanded even more for his primary caretaker, his awesome wife, my remarkable mom.
Like my dad, Mom never complains. A mighty reason why their life is as beautiful as it is stems from her steadfast faithfulness, ferocious optimism, and loving stubbornness. She just refuses to give in or to give up. She simply loves life too much for that attitude. And certainly, loves her husband too much.
It just took laying on their tile bathroom floor for me to see it clearly.
How do we come back together as a country?
My friends, many are asking these days how do we come back together as a country. We feel so divided by race and political affiliation and spiritual bend and social-economic status. With things spiraling out of control and a sense we are pushing one another even further apart, how do we heal?
Well, regardless of how you voted, don’t passively wait for a new administration to do it for you. Regardless of the media channel you watch, don’t expect the pundits on the evening news to help either.
Part of our calling as both citizens and as family members is to stop seeing things through the lens we’ve always gazed through. Instead, we must duck down, step into the shoes of our neighbors and family and friends and try to truly embrace what the world – pain, struggle, dreams, aspirations, wisdom – might look like for them.
This season is far more complex than a celebration of a new Biden administration by half of the country and mourning of the passing Trump administration by the other half.
Today, I encourage you to join me in humbling ourselves to meet our brothers and sisters where they are; with our eyes, ears, hearts wide open. Sometimes it will be a person we may not look, vote or think like. Other times, it will be a person you’ve loved your entire life, but not as intimately as you could.
Sympathy, indifference, despair and anger are common emotions these days.
The way to understand, then heal and finally unite requires that we first empathize.