John shares an intimate story that illustrates the beauty of empathy.
“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 several years ago, I thought of this quote.
Dad has been living with 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 engages 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 simply refuses to be a victim to his circumstances.
But even as his son, it’s easy to miss the totality 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 for a weekend with her daughters several years ago, I saw firsthand how hard it actually is.
Every single movement Dad made was ripe with risk and a chance of pain. Due to a torn rotator cuff, he was unable to use his right arm, which created 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 – required 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 prepared for bed, I rolled Dad into the bathroom. I 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 for me.
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.
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 she loves her husband too much.
It just took laying on their tile bathroom floor for me to see it clearly.
(I was reminded of this experience while interviewing Dr. Sarah Teten Canter on our podcast last week. If you are one of the more than 54 million people responsible for caregiving for a loved one, she’s an expert on positive caregiving and has an amazing life story to share. Check it out here.)
My friends, the best way to really know about someone else is to be humble enough to get down on our knees, meet them where they are, look them in the eye, and realize that we could be them.
Sometimes the person we’ll connect more deeply with will be someone we may not look, vote, worship, or act like. Other times, it will be a person you’ve loved your entire life that you’re fortunate enough to call Dad.
This is your day. Live Inspired.
If you want to meet my amazing parents, why not join us the Saturday after Thanksgiving for On Fire For Good? Hosted in St. Louis, but live steaming around the world, I’m bringing some of the most remarkable individuals I’ve met in my travels onto one stage to remind you of the profound gift of your life. It’s a great way to start the holiday season. Come as you are. Leave On Fire For Good.