It’s not often our expertise but the exploration of our own suffering that enables us to be of real assistance.That’s what allows us to touch another human being’s pain with compassion instead of with fear and pity.We have to invite it all. It is an intimacy with our own inner life that enables us to form an empathetic bridge to the other person.” (Ostaseski, 2008)
The words stung. “You need to just pull up your boot straps and get on with life. I mean how long is it going to take you to be okay living here?”
A hard slap across my tender face would have been more welcome. We had moved from Egypt three years before, a difficult move by any standards. I thought I was doing well. I had landed a job; my children were doing well in school, and top of their classes. They were acting in school plays and had friends and confidantes. We were involved in the school and the community.
In a matter of seconds, none of that was enough.
I needed to do more. Be more.
But I couldn’t. There was nothing more I could do. I was at the end of my resources. We lived in a small town that was 10 minutes from the ocean. Our house was a magical 165 year old Victorian home with over 26 windows and enough space for 5 kids to sprawl. On the surface we were living the American dream.
The problem was that we never wanted to live the American dream. We never thought we would buy a house. We never thought my husband would work at Harvard University. We never anticipated the quintessential small town Main street address.
And so every day was learning to live with what was, not what I wanted. The script had been re-written by a Master Author, yet I as one of the characters was not playing my part very well. My resources had failed.
I had no shoes, let alone boots. I couldn’t pull up anything. But I was told to pull up my bootstraps and get on with life.
There are times when being told to pull up your bootstraps helps – but usually you have to be wearing boots for that to work. There are other times when you wish people would look beyond the surface, would see your lack of shoes, and walk beside you – holding your hand, warning you of the rocks and pebbles that are inevitably a part of the journey.
There are times when instead of telling people to pull up their bootstraps we need to buy them shoes; other times when we need to take off our own shoes and walk with them barefoot.
It’s called empathy.
Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams puts it this way: ”
“Empathy isn’t just remembering to say That must really be hard, it’s figuring out how to bring difficulty into the light so it can be seen at all. Empathy isn’t just listening, it’s asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to. Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination. Empathy requires knowing you know nothing. Empathy means acknowledging a horizon of context that extends perpetually beyond what you can see….”
I’ve thought about the above encounter many times. It no longer hurts to think about it, instead it is from a past that is covered with grace. But I don’t forget it – because hurts in the past when healed can inform our future, can change the way we relate with others. How often have I looked at others and, instead of entering their pain and asking them their story, expected them to just try harder? How often have I acted as though they needed to pull up their bootstraps and get on with life instead of looking to see if they had any boots?
Every day there are people around us with a story, a life narrative. How we choose to meet them can make all the difference. Will we enter with empathy or with judgment?
Readers – purchase Between Worlds before December 15 and all proceeds go toward refugees in Turkey! Read reviews below!
Reviews of Between Worlds:
- Nomad Trails and Tales by Jenni Gate
- Djibouti Jones by Rachel
- Still Learning by Juliet
- Confessions of a Third Culture Kid by Becca Garber
- Quotes from Between Worlds by Deb Mills
- Between Worlds: A Review and a Reflection by Stacy Bender
- Next Stop: Musings of a Third Culture Kid by Dounia
Picture Source: http://pixabay.com/en/rubber-boots-shoe-old-broken-509967/