Empathy

I felt comfortable talking to my dad about anything and was never shy in doing exactly that. He always listened well and offered advice as a friend without ever missing an opportunity to teach a lesson. I would like to claim that he always did this intentionally but I am doubtful that is the case. I was not a typical teenage girl. I never shut myself away from my parents. They always knew what was going on in my life and the lives of my friends. This was because I knew there was no judgment there. Certainly, if I told a story of something I had done that he didn’t feel was appropriate he would tell me but never in a scolding manner. He didn’t want me to just do what was right. He wanted me to want to do what was right. This may seem like a subtle distinction, but it is not. It makes all the difference in the world. He would not just tell me something was wrong he would logically lay out for me how and why it was wrong. Always in a manner that would make me see why I should want to always do the right thing instead of simply fearing to do wrong.

I remember talking to him one day after school about a girl in my class that didn’t have a lot of friends. I was usually the type of girl that would talk to anyone and didn’t care much what other people thought. I hated to see people lonely so I was always willing to strike up a conversation and try to draw them into my group, if even for just one class period. But this girl was not just alone because people looked down on the way she dressed or her personal interests it was because she was flat out mean. She didn’t want to talk to any of us so we were happy not talking to her. Because of this, I felt completely justified in not only not reaching out to her but to bad mouth her as well. I fully expected that hearing all her personality flaws my dad would back me up in this. As my rant ended I noticed my dad was clearly in deep thought as though I had presented him with a puzzle rather than a bit of teen angst.

“How well do you know her?” he asked gently.

“Enough.” I snarled back.

“Apparently not.” He shot back calmly. “There must be some reason she acts that way.”

I was thinking to myself, yeah because she’s a bitch. But I could tell that wasn’t the time.

“I don’t know. I guess she is just a mean person.” I said without much thought.

“Has she always been that way?”

“As long as I’ve known her.  I’m not sure.  But that is her reputation so that has to have come from somewhere.” I reasoned.

He shook his head with a sad sort of grin. His face was no longer searching. He had figured something out. I knew he was seeing my point of view, there was no arguing that some people are just mean and should be left alone. There was no reason for me to put myself into the line of fire to try to be nice to someone who couldn’t be nice themselves. I was about to receive his absolution.

“That must be hard.”

I knew he would see it my way.

“It is but we just try to ignore her.” He went on as if he hadn’t heard me.

“To have everyone assume that you are always going to act a certain way that they automatically treat you in accordance to that preconceived notion of who you are.” I could see where he was going with this but I was going to fight back.

“It isn’t just a preconceived notion, that is just who she is. She would act that way no matter how we treat her.” I defended myself.

“Look Squirt, I’m not saying that if you are nice to her she is going to be nice right back. But not being nice to her certainly isn’t working either. Throughout your life you are going to have to deal with people different from you with their own issues. You aren’t going to get along with everyone and that’s fine. But I do expect you to at least be kind to everyone. You have no idea what they may be going through.”

I want to say that moment changed me forever, that the proverbial light bulb went off in my teenage head that I happily agreed with him and we hugged it out. However, I’m certain that in reality I probably just mumbled “fine” and changed the subject sure that he just didn’t understand. He didn’t push it with me. He said his peace and let it go. What I didn’t realize was that he wasn’t just trying to be the 27 minute Cosby version of a dad. He knew lessons had to be taught slowly over time. He wasn’t going to convince me then and there to go up to the girl and ask her to a slumber party. I wasn’t going to have a meaningful conversation with her to find out some tragedy had befallen her family and she was just misunderstood. We weren’t going to become best friends. But that was all okay. He made his point and he knew that it was there in the back of my head for the next time a similar situation would arise and he would make the same point until slowly, without me noticing it would work its way into my subconscious. He could be a tricky genius like that.

♦♦♦

A story was told at his funeral about a time he was driving down the road and someone who had been trailing him for some time finally passed him on a double yellow line and drove off like mad. My aunt made a nasty remark about that person being an idiot. My dad smiled at her and said, “Maybe his wife is in the hospital and he’s in a rush to get to her.” That was the man he was. He was always able to see the other side of the coin.

He made a habit out of insisting that whenever we discussed politics or religion no matter if we agreed, one of us always had to give the opposing view point. He never allowed for the conversation to just be a bitch fest for our own vanity. Someone had to present the other argument. This was so hard for me at first. I thought it was so crazy to give the other side’s case when they weren’t even there. But he insisted that you can’t really stand where you think you stand if you haven’t first fully considered all possible points of view. The best way to do that was to present it yourself, it forced you to understand the feelings and experiences that other people had behind the things they believed. It also helped you to identify the common ground. Common ground was an important idea to him. “Squirt, you can never imagine how many other people in the world think the things you think, love the things you love, fear the things you fear. The only thing any of them wants is to know that they aren’t the only ones. They aren’t. You aren’t.”

This was never meant to be a tool to use against them but to be used to force yourself to consider more carefully where you stand. He had very strong opinions and loved that I grew into a person that did as well. But he felt it was important to be able to back up your beliefs equally with knowledge and compassion. To consider where others were coming from and what was motivating them. I always thought of this as our secret little devilish plan but I know now that he was trying to teach me to suspend judgment and instead try to see it from their point of view. He wanted his daughter to know empathy.

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