Photo: Freeimages.com – Adrian, Canada
I was 4 and I’ll never forget.
Our gazes locked. A kindergarten classmate; her eyes, red, swollen. Tears streamed down her face.
I felt something. You know the feeling. Starts in your heart, works its way through your throat, eyes, rolling like the surf crashing toward shore.
I cried. Because I saw her cry. Empathy.
As I aged, I felt crying was a curse, made me soft. It wasn’t until I had children that I realized empathy is a gift. Years of being a man repressed it. When my first son was born, I knew I had to embrace my emotions, listen to them. To allow love to be the driving force—goodness in my life.
He was 6. We watched the movie, Air Bud. There’s a scene when Josh, a young boy, has to leave Buddy, his dog, on an island. Not because he wants to, but to protect him from smugglers. Tear-jerking scene. I watched my son. He bawled, sad for both the dog and boy.
I put my arm around him and realized he too, has the gift.
Empathy is the ability to understand, to experience the feelings of others. It helps you step outside yourself and feel things from another’s perspective. I believe it is the foundation for true love. I’m talking about a deep love that connects people forever. A parent’s love for her children. A child’s love for his parents.
I experienced this love after dislocating my finger playing softball. I took too big a turn rounding first base after ripping a line drive up the middle. Caught between bases, I backtracked to first to avoid getting thrown out by the cut-off man. I slid head first into the bag. My hand jammed into the base, solidly fixed into the ground.
My right ring finger bent 60 degrees. Dangled.
I didn’t notice until I dusted myself off and looked down. “Uh,” I said calmly, trying not to overreact, “I think I need to go to the hospital.”
Teammates told my wife I was in shock. There was no way anyone could have been so calm with that funky of a finger. Everyone was grossed out. Fingers are not meant to bend like that.
My boys both saw the bent digit. They freaked out. Younger son, 7, cried, scared at the grotesque contortion. I comforted him walking from the ball diamond to the parking lot. Told him he had to give me his power. I held his hand in the car, reaching from front seat to back. We were connected. Physically and emotionally.
At the hospital, my wife was about to take the boys home. Younger still had tears. Older son, 9, fought them back. “It’s okay to cry,” I whispered. My wife later told me he pinches himself to stop crying, so as to not “embarrass” himself.
Why did he feel like he couldn’t show sadness, like he shouldn’t cry? Why do we, as a culture, discourage boys from expressing feelings, especially in public?
Man up. Be a man. It’s no wonder many boys grow up limited by the “strong, stoic” persona; who have trouble expressing emotions other than anger, rage.
I’ve always tried to nurture an emotional, intimate connection with my children. It’s a big reason I was a stay-at-home dad for six years. I’ve always hoped this time would pay off in a deeper emotional bond later in life.
My boys were so sweet. When I returned from the hospital, my wife said younger wore one of my ratty t-shirts to sleep. Older clutched onto one of my shirts in bed.
That night, I felt the love my sons and I share—their true concern. I felt grateful, nourished. I know I have to make this world a better place: to share passion, love. Those who know love is the answer know what I’m talking about.
Everything felt so clear in that moment. I never felt so focused, absorbing my children’s empathy and concern. I am forever humbled and grateful for their love.
I’m 43 and I’ll never forget.