Last night, after shutting off our computers, my husband and I dragged ourselves into the messy kitchen for a good cleaning. It was late, we were tired and it had been a trying day with the kids.
As I scrubbed the dinner dishes, and he scrubbed the table and counters, instead of talking about the big stuff (read: the children), I vented about a writing project I am working on.
My husband offered several suggestions, to which I said nothing.
Finally he said, exasperated, "Well, of course, I've given up you taking any advice from me. I'm not even sure why you ask."
And somehow my irritating situation had shifted focus, turned into something else, and got lost completely.
I said, "You know what? When I talk to you? I think there is a misunderstanding about what I want."
He said, "Sometimes I think all you want is sympathy."
I said, "You say that as if it is a bad thing."
Empathic failure. In the above conversation, you could so easily switch our roles. I'm equally guilty of empathic failure at times. We all do it with varying degrees of frequency.
Why are we so convinced sympathy leads to weakness and wallowing?
Why are we all so eager to fix it and get ourselves and those around us quickly back on track, moved on?
Why is it so wrong to let someone have a period of negative emotion, infused with the faith that once processed, will move on?
In fact, sometimes I wonder if the moving on bit gets flummoxed because we don't know---and thus don't teach our children---how to handle the negative emotions, how to have them, process them and carry forth after forgiving and letting go. Perhaps we also get mired in too much or too little sympathy, and spin in a cycle of frustration and irritation.
I can say I've noticed sympathy is often out of balance these days: it is either distractedly unconditional without end, or frustratedly eager to hit resolution and cease.
And perhaps that means time is the issue.
In any given moment there are at least two things I am doing, and five or so behind me needing doing but not getting gotten to.
I am often distracted and overly busy. I realize this, and bemoan it nearly daily. It's easy for my mind to chant: it's in your control to change it. It's much harder to try and figure out what gets dropped. Quit doing laundry? Stop cleaning the house? Quit working? Every option explored has negative repercussions that are thus far unacceptable.
I tell myself things will get easier in the fall when the children return to school. And I know this is true. I can constrain working time to childcare times, do chores quickly on either end, and use the rest to interact in a quality way with the kids.
It's not a little ironic that in the summer---with no commitments or schedule to keep---I feel like we have less time than during the school year when time is so scripted and conscripted.
I remain steadfast in my refusal to complicate our lives any more with any additional obligations. I limit the children to one, maximum two, activities, and thus far it is under my control to not select the time intensive ones, such as swim team, which requires almost daily commitment. At 5. Competitive swim team daily. (Yes, I am shaking my head.)
And yet, we are still too busy.
I often feel the need to chuck it all and move with my family to a tent in the wilderness. What are we all working so hard for, if the cost is our relations to one another?
Sympathy and empathy are still out of balance. Knowing is one thing, being and doing quite another level altogether.
Sometimes, I simply sit and listen when I ought to prod. Sometimes, I prod when I ought to simply sit and listen. I know on my end, when I feel frustrated or angry, it is due to my expectations:
Why can't she just hear what I'm saying?
Why does he always have to try and solve it?
I wish she would quit trying to play devil's advocate!
Can he just tell me he understands?
Once I said to my husband that I had actually not been looking for a solution (yet) just a sympathetic ear, he switched gears.
Perhaps we need to provide roadmaps to our needs. Perhaps if we get lost on the way trying to meet another's needs we need to say simply, I'm sorry, and switch gears.
This week, after reading a post by Slouching Mom, our family started a Kindness Campaign. We're all meant to slow down, pay attention to road signs in the ones we love, and enjoy the journey together, with kindness. We're using paper clips in plastic cups (one for each member of the family) to mark where we've been and done. In the center of our cups is the Forfeit cup. It's meant to be empty at the end of the week, and our other cups full. We're trying to earn a big fun family outing. I don't have a back-up plan because failure isn't an option. The only option is to extend the game another week, and try again.
Hopefully, we will arrive soon at our destination, where failure of empathy, sympathy and kindness are infrequent. The exception, rather than the rule.
And once this is ingrained and familiar to my children, perhaps they will see (and give) it out more often in the world.
Balance of concern. Respect. Courtesy. Kindness.
ETA: Intriguingly, Ceclilieaux has written about empathic failure, as failed friendships.
ADDITION: Explaining the Kindness Campaign
In the photo at the top of this post, you can see the cups we use for the Kindness Campaign. Here is how it works:
One cup for every family member (Parents too!)
One cup for forfeit
Large supply of common household item (we used paperclips)
Put 10 paperclips in each cup (including forfeit cup)
RULE: Use kind words in kind voice, courtesy, consideration and respect towards one another. Catch one another being nice!
GOAL: Empty forfeit cup at end of week
REWARD: Special family outing!
LOSE one paperclip for breaking with kindness (put lost paperclip in forfeit cup)
GAIN one paperclip for being kind, random act of kindness (get from forfeit cup)
If at the end of the week the forfeit cup isn't empty, keep going until it is. Then enjoy the reward!
Also, there isn't to be a comparison of who has more or less paperclips. The only thing evaluated is forfeit cup.
Make sure to involve children when setting up and playing the game.
Note: I don't reward gratuitous kindness that come from a "gain a paperclip" motivation. I just say thanks.
Let me know if you have any more questions! :)
copyright 2007 Julie Pippert