I had always understood empathy to be trying to imagine myself in someone else’s shoes, and then trying to understand how it would feel. I got it half right.
Empathy was the greatest lesson I ever learned in college. It wasn’t in a class I received credits for. I didn’t even learn it in a class. The lesson I learned at that age and in that place wasn’t taught to me by a professor or an advisor. I learned what true empathy was from one of my peers; a fairly grouchy one, at that.
One of my female acquaintances, “a friend of a friend,” I guess you could call her, had lost her mother to cancer about a year before I met her. As a senior in high school, she took it hard. I thought that I could relate because I had never dealt well with the death of family members, either. One day, when the girl was using the past catastrophe as an explanation (perhaps, excuse) for a recent faux pas, I followed up by saying I knew how she felt.
Oops. Now the faux pas was on the other foot. I was told in no uncertain terms that I didn’t know how my acquaintance felt. Had my mother died? NO! And even if she had, I wouldn’t understand how someone else felt when they lost their mother! The tirade continued with me being left with no misunderstanding about how every person has their own feelings and each person processes grief differently. I would never understand how my castigator felt. No one would.
Whether I appreciated the presentation or not, I had just learned what true empathy was.
I should have let her walk home. No, it wasn’t a date. I was giving her a ride as a favor to my friend. I thought about letting her walk home, but decided to spend the next half hour in awkward silence. I guess that’s not completely true. My old muscle car had a fairly impressive stereo which I adjusted to ensure that any other criticism would be rendered ineffective.
As angry as I was, as I cooled down and thought about what was said, I soon realized that whether I appreciated the presentation or not, I had just learned what true empathy was.
I really didn’t understand how my acquaintance felt. I didn’t understand how some of my best friends and family felt, with things that troubled them. Without that understanding, I couldn’t practice true empathy. All of my life I had been in the habit of saying things like: “I don’t get it. I would never act/feel that way in the same situation.” When people told me that I would never know how I would act in any given situation, unless it actually happened, those words didn’t ring true to me. I have a Type A personality. I’m pretty accurate at guessing how I will act in most situations. Family and anyone else who knows me is pretty accurate in guessing how I will act in most situations.
Not everyone is me. That’s the point. Five minutes of getting chewed out in college taught me that no one gets to tell someone else how they should feel. That has been a valuable lesson in empathy for me, right inside my family, and even before I got married. it has been one of the most important parenting tools I have ever found.
Not one of those adopted children feels the same about their adoption as another.
My wife was the victim of domestic abuse right up until she entered a foster family at fifteen. Things were not much better in the foster home. To understand my wife, to practice true empathy, I needed to look at who she was, what made her, what was important to her, what she feared, what her hopes were, and then try to understand how I would feel if I was her; NOT if I was me.
That ill-received college lesson in empathy has continued to help with parenting as my wife and I have added to our family through adoption. We had three sons biologically before we added another six by adoption. Not one of those adopted children feels the same about their adoption as another. In fact, their feelings are fluid and often paradoxical. Not one of my biological sons feels the same as another about the difficulties that some of my adopted children came with, and the challenges and trouble that they brought into the home.
As I began to write about adoption, I had no idea how controversial the subject was. It’s a good thing I had thick skin! Much of what I read, I didn’t like. Even so, I tried to take a page from the book of my college experience where I learned that I didn’t need to appreciate a mode of delivery to learn something.
I believe that both sides of the fence in the adoption community need to pause and show true empathy.
I watch people in the adoption community from both sides of the fence, frustrated, often angry, perhaps even enraged. So often, when our emotions are behind us, we have a hard time understanding how anyone could feel the way they do when it is contrary to our position. “I wouldn’t feel like that if it was me!” Of course, that is true. But if we were that person, with their genetics, thoughts, fears and experiences, we would.
I believe that both sides of the fence in the adoption community need to pause and show true empathy. We need to understand that true empathy involves us trying to imagine ourselves as another person, in their shoes, not us, being us, in their shoes. Once we practice such empathy, while our positions will not change, we will be more compassionate. We will be willing to help each other to do what we all really want to do; and that is to make the world a better place for children. It is to better homes and families. I believe that anyone who has seen the pain of a child who had their first family fail, and who really tried to understand, realizes that our efforts should always be about how to best help children.
To my former college acquaintance, while I wouldn’t recommend trusting me to drive you all the way home on a trip through the desert, I appreciate the lesson you taught me. And to some of the people on the other side of the adoption awareness fence (and particularly to two who have reached out to me with friendly ears, and words of advice and encouragement), thank you. Thank you for showing empathy to me and to my family. Thank you for helping me to understand how some of my children feel, while accepting that some of the others have completely different sentiments.
Your comments matter. Please scroll down and share your thoughts!
Read more articles by John M. Simmons about Adoption
Return to John M. Simmons’ blog
Ensure you don’t miss anything by signing up for Our Weekly Newsletter. This is all you need to be qualified for occasional giveaways like the Kindle Fire that Kristy Goulart won in July!