The Long Journey to Empathy and Forgiveness

It’s almost like a pool of water: on the surface we simply exist and things happen to us, good and bad. A bit deeper we recognize that they’re not all our fault or justified, and sometimes – perhaps often – actions are not okay and not justified. That breeds anger, resentment, depression, etc. But deeper than that and a real challenge to reach is the lower level of forgiveness, of seeing what happens, recognizing it’s hurtful or difficult, and being angry at the event, not the perpetrator.

Where’s all this coming from? A conversation I had with my now 17yo son after listening to him be quite critical of people around us, about his sisters and about me and my behavior towards him almost a decade earlier. I realized that he was moving into the second level and was facing the jarring realization that your expectations on life don’t always line up neatly with what actually happens.

sunrise / forgivenessAt some level, that’s perhaps the inherent nature of adolescence, where the struggle for self-identity invariably comes from disappointment, but there’s a critical element of empathy that I think is so important for happiness in life. Conceptually, I think it’s the weight that lets you draw deeper into the metaphorical pool; empathy and forgiveness are inexorably intertwined.

I see this same journey in my relationship and feelings towards my ex; we started out just being buffeted by each others actions and moods, and it was awful. That gradually grew in me to anger as I realized I wasn’t powerless nor should I be the victim (undoubtedly she had a parallel journey of self-discovery in our divorce too). But it’s only in the last few years that I’ve been able to go from tolerance and resentment to some level of acceptance and empathy for her, her experience in our marriage and divorce and her life challenges. I’ve reached that by beginning to forgive her for her own contributions to our challenges and those of our children.

It’s given meaning to a phrase I’ve said for a very long time, typically about my own parents in defense of anyone saying they weren’t the world’s best super-parents when I was growing up: they tried their best, their hearts were in the right place, etc.

Were they really trying their best? Are we always striving to be the best we can be? Or do we fall down and sometimes just be hurt, sad, angry, selfish? I’m sure the latter, but that’s where we get to the forgiveness piece. To slightly mis-quote the book Who Murdered Roger Rabbit, “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way”.

In fact, I think that empathy comes from a place of love, while being critical comes from a place of insecurity. When my son is snarky and critical of strangers we encounter, it’s out of a place of being a bit unsure of his own place in the world. Some people never quite outgrow it, and our culture seems to be stuck there a lot of the time too. Consider how America’s Funniest Home Videos are unsympathetically focused on people generally humiliating or hurting themselves purely for audience titillation.

empathy / parenting / sunsetWhich brings me back to my son and his view of his sisters versus my own view. I certainly don’t consider myself particularly enlightened — far from it! — but it’s astonishing to me how much my children all judge and are critical of each other, often without even the slightest trace of empathy.

One of them has a bad day, gets into a fight with a friend (or parent), whatever, and the other expects their relationship to be special and untainted by the greater world around them. Perhaps it’s the self-centeredness of adolescence, as I said earlier, but it’s rather disheartening to be floating deeper in the pool, looking up and seeing the pain and hurt that being stuck in the shallows is creating in three I love so much.

And so my son and I talked about forgiveness as a pathway to empathy (or vice versa. hard to say). I don’t know that he really understood, but I have just found it such an important concept and viewpoint, something that really can make the difference between happiness and perpetual anger or depression. To misquote again, people aren’t bad, sometimes they just act that way.

But perhaps this is my exercise in forgiving my children from being at their own points in their journey to maturity after all, and it all wraps around on itself. I do forgive G- for his feelings towards his sisters. I just look forward to when they can love each other in spite of being flawed humans and teenagers both.

How about you? How’s your practice in forgiveness going?

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