When did you last show empathy towards another human being? Is being empathetic something you practice on a daily basis? Are you sensitive to the suffering of others? Sounds simple, right? I always thought so. However, I have begun to realize that the conscious desire to be an empathetic person is not something everyone has. Or, perhaps, some people just lack their empathy bone.
I guess most people know where their funny bone is located. The long bone of the upper arm is known as the humerus, and when one pronounces the word, it sounds just like humorous. Hence, the funny bone. So if most people know where their funny bone is located, I wonder if people know where their empathy bone is located. Probably not. As far as I know, we don’t actually have an empathy “bone” since it is a cerebral entity, but we should not have to bang our heads or elbows in desperation to discover that we might actually be sensitive to another person’s pain and suffering. Should we? When is the last time you felt empathy for someone? What was it like? When is the last time you dealt with someone who clearly had no empathy bone? Did you crack that person over the head with your funny bone? Well, if the person I am writing about had been sitting in the same room with me, I would have smacked her with my humerus, and it would not have been humorous.
During an online discussion about creative writing, a friend of mine wrote about a student breaking down in class. Then, FBG (Facebook Gal) suggested that in creative writing classes (and I am guessing elsewhere in life), “adults have bigger demons, less innocence, and bigger panties,” and thus should be able to deal with criticism and not cry in class or anywhere else for that matter. I, along with others, pointed out that perhaps the student was just going through a tough time or having a bad day, and the age of a person should not dictate how many demons one has or how much innocence (or lack thereof) one has.
FBG then informed folks participating in the tremulous thread of conversation that she worked in a hospital, and she attempted to suggest her previous comments were about someone in high school and not a “full grown woman.” Following that, FBG tried to clarify who had the right to cry in public: “Having cancer is having a bad day, and [she] hardly ever see[s] them cry about it.” These are the following two posts:
Me: “Yes, FBG, having cancer sucks. I happen to have a brain tumor, and I can tell you about having a bad day. If you don’t see me crying, it doesn’t mean I don’t cry in private. I am a full-grown woman (whatever that means) if that makes any difference.”
FBG: “I’m not going to argue with a woman with a brain tumor, but I am curious as to why my comments are received [sic] color coated like skittles by all the other commentators. Hey I used a simile!” She followed her last comment with a smiley face.
Well, shiver me empathetic timbers! I told my husband that if I am ever in a hospital where this woman works to make sure she stays far away from me. I wouldn’t care if she showed up with fifty smiley faces, and she was writing similes by the dozen.
Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on one’s point of view, my friend who posed the original question, decided to delete the post and all comments. Luckily I had printed off the post and the comments, because I wanted to reread the comments at my own leisure and try to make sense of how the conversation had taken such a weird turn. I should have remembered something my mother taught me years ago: “Don’t get into a pissing match with a skunk, because the skunk always wins, and you will come out stinky.” My idea for an updated version of this analogy would be this: “Don’t get into a pissing match with a complete stranger on Facebook, because that person always wins, because you stop responding in disgust.” But in all actuality, that person doesn’t really win the argument when he or she decides to deride the conversation by demonstrating a clear lack of an empathy bone.
Now perhaps FBG is really a nice person, and she just had a bad day on FB. Perhaps she does have an empathy bone. She does, after all, work at a hospital. I wish I knew which hospital it is, since it is a hospital where cancer patients don’t cry in front of her. I would have welcomed this scenario when I spent so many years in numerous hospitals and nursing homes when my parents were dying or when my daughter lay dying in the hospital.
Perhaps my empathy bone is overdeveloped. After all, I am a “full grown woman,” and “I’ve got bigger demons and less innocence.” It certainly is true that I have “big girl panties.” But I think my empathy bone started gaining strength after years of sitting in my office at work, and either reading student journals or listening to students who have suffered abuse at home; or young women who have been raped; or young men who have been beaten by their fathers for years; or students whose parents are going through a divorce and it is just killing them; or students whose parents or brothers or sisters are dying of cancer. And, yes, a great many of these students cried, and I cried along with them. Why are we so afraid of tears? Aren’t tears the lubricant for one’s empathy bone?
I want to thank FBG for making me think about ways in which I can be more empathetic to others. I am working on ways to be kinder to others every day—and am working on the notion that someone might be having a bad day if he or she tries to run over me when I am out running. Sometimes I can feel my middle finger start to rise in protest, and I want to shout the word “asshole,” but I am working on those nasty past behaviors of mine.
FBG also taught me a lesson: Not everyone is going to cut me any slack just because I have a brain tumor. In other words, I need to keep my big girl panties on at all times and deal with my demons. If someone wants to make a simile out of my misfortune, well, that is his or her right. A smiley face is optional.
In early September, I joined four women at Chicago O’Hare International Airport as we all flew in from our hometowns. LouAnn Law, Amy Hall, Audrey Lewis, and Julie Bowline had devised a plan for us to meet and surprise Sybil Benson for her 50th birthday. These women are sisters and the daughters of my late mother’s brother. My cousins wanted me to be part of the Great Reveal.
Bryan Benson, Sybil’s husband, had been part of the plan from the beginning, and he picked us up at the airport. The ride from the airport to Libertyville where Bryan and Sybil live passed quickly. We were eager to change our clothes at their house and prepare for surprising Sybil.
Bryan drove us to Mickey Finn’s in downtown Libertyville. As we walked into the bar, we turned quite a few heads. We weren’t sure if it was our good looks or because we were very loud. It could have been because we were all dressed in black, wore buttons with Sybil’s pictures at various ages, and draped mourning veils over our heads. If I had realized wearing a mourning veil into a bar was such an attention-getter, I may have tried it when I was young and single.
We engaged other people at the bar and told our story. Not only were we anxiously anticipating Sybil’s arrival, but so were the people in the bar. When Sybil headed in from the rear area of the bar, the bartender raised her hand in a silent signal. As Sybil began walking towards us, she looked confused as she stared at her husband sitting at a table with “five orbs,” as she would refer to us later. When we burst into song, everyone in the bar joined in as we sang “Happy Birthday” to her. After explaining to Sybil all of the preparations that took place to pull off this caper, we settled in to share stories. As one of the bar patrons, a man around fifty-years young, exited the bar, he stopped by our table and spoke directly to Sybil: “Hello, I am English John. The good news is that I am not the stripper.” If English John ever mentioned what the bad news was, we were laughing too hard to hear him.
Stories…we had so many stories to share. With the recent death of my father, sharing laughter, love, and stories was just what I needed. I felt as if I had been transported out of grief and into a space of jubilation. Later, we returned to Sybil and Bryan’s house and settled in. We used Skype to connect with other family members until late in the evening. We talked about my parents, their father, and the loss of our mothers. Before my father died, he knew I was going to Libertyville for the Great Reveal, and I know he was very happy for me.
On Friday, Bryan went to work, and the six of us hit the road. We started our day at a fabulous restaurant in Libertyville before heading off to Oak Park. We toured the Frank Lloyd Wright Historic District and his Oak Park home and studio. I was fascinated with our journey, and as we walked past the houses, and later throughout his studio and home, I kept thinking what a lucky person I was to have such amazing women in my life. Months earlier, my cousins had decided that I should be the sixth sister, and they introduced me as such everywhere we went. This act of love and kindness created a strange sensation in me.
As someone who had grown up as an only child, I imagined how my life would have been different had I been surrounded by sisters. When I was very young, children in school made fun of me for being adopted, and I would go home crying. Although my parents tried to comfort me, the string of words I heard on a regular basis stung. When I was older, I wondered where these children learned this behavior. What were their parents telling them about what it meant to be adopted? Although some of the children I went to school with from kindergarten until 8th grade never let up on the fact that I was supposedly different, most of them gave up their bullying routine as we grew older. Some became close friends. My cousins, however, always treated me as if there was nothing different about me: I was just Bob and Margaret Lyn’s daughter.
In the essay “Modern Friendships,” Phillip Lopate suggests that the “Friendship Scene” is “a flow of shared confidences, recognitions, humor, advice, speculation, even wisdom.” Here was a group of women who had known me long before I knew myself, and they had loved my parents deeply. Since it had been less than two weeks since my father had died, I felt myself climbing into a box of memories of him, always knowing how much he cared for others, and how much he valued his family and friends. After so much loss in my recent past, I finally felt as if something was opening up for me with this group of women; something I had not planned on, and nothing I could have expected.
On Saturday, we walked around Independence Grove, a beautiful area near Libertyville. We eventually worked our way to downtown Libertyville and an art fair in Mundelein. We were just killing time until the main event. Yes, the “Great Reveal” had been an event to remember, but we had also planned to incorporate the past into our weekend.
When we were young, our grandparents went on a cruise for their wedding anniversary. I am guessing that my mother and my aunt had gotten together and decided we should all dress up and put on a little show for our grandparents bon voyage party. Since Sybil wasn’t born when the original picture had been taken, we had decided to recreate the moment of our Hawaiian luau from so many years past, so that we could include Sybil in the picture.
As we dressed up in hula skirts, small silky tops, pearl ankle bracelets, and leis, and put flowers in our hair, we laughed until we cried before heading to the basement. We posed for pictures, and Bryan snapped photos from dozens of angles. Unfortunately, I am not allowed to share those photos with anyone outside our families. My cousins/sisters were adamant that the photos stay within the family. Apparently they believe little girls in grass skirts and crepe-paper bras are much cuter than grown women wearing grass skirts, spandex, and silky material wrapped around our cleavage. Although I am willing to share photos on Facebook or with anyone I can find, I will stick to my promise. Well, unless someone offers me a great amount of money.
I realize now that friendship and family are sometimes two very different things, but we shouldn’t always be so eager to categorize. Throughout my life, I was always labeled the adopted child or the only child. Is everyone supposed to fit into one category or another? I have friends who are like family to me, although no familial ties bind us. With my mother and father now both deceased, I seek stories, advice, and wisdom from my friends and family. The people in my life who blur the lines between friendship and family are the ones I can count on, the ones I will always make time for, and the ones I would do anything for.
I have learned many life lessons since I found out I have a brain tumor, and I thought of a lesson I had learned when my daughter, Nicole, died in 1988. There are people who walk away from us just when we need them the most. They retreat from us slowly, or sometimes in a moment of anger accusing us and judging us for things we say or do when we are knee deep in sorrow and despair.
And one morning you step away from your sadness and start focusing on people in your life who embrace you and listen to you as you try to negotiate through your pain. They surround you with love, listen to you as you tell your stories of unconscionable grief, hold your hand when you weep from sadness, and laugh when you find something you can once again joke about. The Great Reveal reminded me of all of this, and now my work is cut out for me. I want to be that person who listens to my friends and family when something causes them pain. I want to be someone a person can count on during a period of grief or sadness. Most importantly, I will be present, and I will listen.