You know that meme that says, “I am silently correcting your grammar?”
I’m that guy.
I’m not just talking about spelling or punctuation or usage. (Although I grit my teeth whenever I see someone misuse “Too, To and Two.” How in God’s green earth can someone not know the difference between those words and still be allowed to operate a motor vehicle?)
Rather, I am talking about choosing the right words and, most of all, accepting responsibility for what is said.
The power and weight and consequence of words is immense, especially in today’s world of social media when so many say so much that, ultimately means so little.
Words seem to have lost their inherent value, spewed aimlessly, reduced to so much acidic vomit, their truth twisted cynically into sour, burned pretzels of misinformation and deception.
These thoughts came to mind at a conference I recently attended about understanding poverty.
In that context I realized that we often confuse and therefore misuse “Sympathy” and “Empathy.”
First, to be clear, though their meanings overlap, they are not directly synonymous.
Empathy means acknowledging the validity of another’s experience. Without judgement. Without criticism.
Sympathy, on the other hand is the act of feeling badly for someone because of some unfortunate life circumstance. It sometimes smacks of (or at least can open the door to) judgement, criticism and pity.
For example, I feel badly that one of my brothers is suffering the residual effects of a vicious divorce. My heart hurts for him (though I have to say there’s a lot of karma behind what he’s going through.)
That may seem a subtle line in the linguistic sand. It’s not – neither in theory nor application.
It is literally the difference between saying “I feel for you,” and “I feel you.”
Sadly, like so many other aspects of our capitalistic, “I-Me-Mine” American society in which we think first (and sometimes only) of how something will impact us personally, we tend to favor sympathy over empathy.
Sympathy (without empathy) requires less of us — physically, emotionally or even financially.
Sympathy (without empathy) lets us stand off to the side and do nothing more than cluck our tongues, pitying someone for their hard knocks.
It allows us to feel superior.
However, Empathy demands more emotional maturity, philosophical flexibility and intellectual impartiality.
It is harder, and perhaps more dangerous to say, “I may not agree with your lifestyle/position/choice/perspective. I cannot understand it because it’s not my reality. But it is authentic for you. So, I respect it.”
Empathy forces us to recognize, acknowledge and understand that my life is not everyone’s life. And that others – just like me – didn’t and don’t always get to choose the circumstances of their life.
Most especially, empathy insists that we say (and this is the hardest part): “I want to help however I can, human being to human being.” No judgement, no criticism.
So, for example, I am not poor (or African American, or female, or homosexual, or grieving the loss of a family member, etc.) Therefore, I cannot possibly understand what it means, or has meant, or will mean to be any of those things.
But I am willing and able – indeed, I am charged as a fellow life traveler – to trust that someone else’s experience, circumstances, challenges and obstacles are very much real.
They define us.
They define how the world sees and interacts with us – and potentially how we see and interact with the world around us in response.
I may not get “It” – whatever “It” is for someone else. But I don’t have to, in order to do the right thing.
A very good friend of mine notes that I write a lot about social justice issues.
Yet this isn’t about social justice per se. In a perverse way, making this concern that “big” makes it too big. Doing that somehow elevates empathy to a gilded place, making it harder to get at and therefore easier to ignore.
Rather, this is about something much simpler: basic human decency (speaking of important and misunderstood words…)
When it comes to understanding others different than us – no matter the difference — basic human decency dictates we should step down from our pedestal and help someone else step up.
Try to simply understand.
Open our minds and hearts.
Stretch out a helping hand as far as possible.
And remember that how we are different isn’t nearly as important as how we are the same.
Our oldest daughter Emma, all 4 feet, 9 inches of her is a New Mom.
She gives my wife and me detailed directions like the sun rising, every time we watch our eight-month-old granddaughter Riley:
Feed her at this time, bathe her at that time, play with those toys, use this to wipe her, sing to her to get her to eat, mix this food with that one, mush the bananas clockwise but not after 3 p.m., etc.
She always ends with, “Send me pictures and give her lots of kisses.”
Mostly, we accept and play along with this routine because we remember what it was like being new parents some 25 years ago. Worried about every little thing. Afraid that your brand-new baby is going to shatter into a gatrillion pieces in the evil grips of the first strong breeze. Terrified that every tiny birthmark is a harbinger of some awful childhood malady.
Which is exactly the point. We’ve been there, done that. As I have told Emma several times, tongue only partly in cheek, “Please note that you and your sister are still here and you’re both doing relatively OK.”
Still, whenever Emma issues her Maternal Mandate, I often respond with a favorite joke:
“I normally charge for that,” I say, “but since I like you so much, I’ll give you the Family Discount.”
Our kids, familiar with the gag, now just roll their eyes and ask how much discount they get. Ten percent? Twenty?
Truth be told, it is amusing to us as new grandparents because we (like all new parents) were the same way.
Now though, we have the unique pleasure of knowing full well what’s coming.
The bumps and bruises. The tears. The laughter. The exhilaration of that first flight on the playground swing. The thrill of learning to read. Showing off the new song she learned to play on the piano. “Teaching” Nana and Papa how to do her homework the “right way.” Sharing a newly-learned bit of knowledge.
And later, (no matter what my son-in-law says about her joining a convent) the excitement of her first kiss. The starry-eyed end of her first date. And maybe if we’re all very lucky, her first dance with her soulmate at her wedding.
It’s also heartening to know that our daughter and son-in-law are such caring parents that they wrap their child in blankets of protective love – even with two of the people who love her most in all the world.
Frankly, this grand-parenting this is just about the most awesome job we’ve ever had. My wife recently said, completely sincere, “I don’t know what I did before this.”
I reminded her about the 33 years of our life together, Pre-Grandchild.
She stared at me like I’d spoken ancient Aramaic.
In any case, we have fallen deeply in love with an eight-month-old girl baby for whom all of life is an adventure still unfolding, so full that we can’t even begin to imagine what tomorrow might bring.
So, we don’t even try.
We just thank God for this Now. For every smile that makes the room sparkle. Every joy-filled laugh. Every heart-breaking tear. Every endearing touch from her chubby little hands.
This newfound love, this extension and affirmation of our own parenting is so fulfilling that its value exceeds any “fee” I could charge.
Well, not the kisses. No discounts for those for anyone.
However, for Riley, the first two million are free.