Thursday, 10/6/2011

Empathy is not a Ladder

Erica  recounts (under duress) a spat she’d had with one of her friends today, and the topic of people not being nice but having a good heart makes its way into conversation.

“She’s nice though,” says Mom.

“Ah, I bet she’s like so-and-so with the fighting,” says Maddie, referring to one of her not-friends.

“She… she’s got a good heart though,” says Mom, referring to Erica’s friend.

“I think so-and-so has a good heart too,” says Maddie. “She’s just not a nice girl.”

“You can’t have a good heart and not be nice,” I say to Maddie.

“Yes you can.”


“You’re not nice.”

“I’m very nice. Very empathetic.”


Mom laughs. “You are?”

“That doesn’t mean you’re nice,” says Maddie.

“I hate when you do that stupid laugh,” says Erica to Mom.

“You’re not generally nice to people.”


“Wouldn’t you say? You have kind of a standoffish attitude.”

I grunt, ignore her, and thereby make her point for her.


“Oh, today I had a really old, crabby sub Mom,” says Daniel “Dad, she was so crabby…”


“Our sub today, and um…”

“Your sub?”

“Yeah, she was like…”

“What’s grabby?”


“Oh, okay. Crabby.”

“And, um, one kid started cracking up ‘cause she said a funny sentence during the spelling test…”

“What’d she say?”

“…and she was…”

“What’d she say?”

“…oh, um… Oh! What’d she say? I forgot.”

“What word was it?”


“What word was it?”

“Uhhh… the word… I don’t remember.”

“Hang on. Let me get it,” I say referring to his latest spelling test that he had brought home today to show me. I get up look for it on my desk.

“Oh, it’s not here anymore. What did you do with it?”

“I didn’t do anything with it,” says Mom.

“Where’d you put it?” I ask Maddie.


She looks at Mom.

“Daniel’s test,” says Mom

“You guys were looking at camouflage,” I say.

We’d had a debate about the proper spelling of the word “camouflage” on his test. It still doesn’t look quite right to me…

“Oh, um…”

“You put it in your office,” says Daniel.


Maddie reaches behind her, pulls it off a pile of papers on the buffet, and hands it to me.

“Here.” I hand it to Daniel. “Figure out what word it was.”

He studies it for a moment. “Oh, yeah. I like to play in many holes.”

I laugh. Erica and Maddie look at Daniel between them and stare.

“Well yeah,” I say. “I would laugh too. And I’m an adult.”

“[My best friend in middle school] and I would have ripped her right up with sarcasm and jokes,” says Mom, laughing too now.

“No,” says Daniel. “And then she started laugh… no, and then this kid started laughing, and then she’s like ‘Oh, you haven’t seen me. I don’t have my witch on yet,’” he mimics in falsetto.

“Her ‘witch on?’”

“Yeah. She’s like, ‘I like to dig holes, and then we play in them.’”

Even Erica snickers at this.


She had dug for herself a very deep hole it seems, and nothing except silence at that point would have allowed her to stop digging and climb back out. I can empathize despite what Mom says, but I hope she likes playing in it. When you dig your own hole, you’re on your own.

Adults can be cruel toward other adults, but I think kids can be much crueler. Either that or it just stings more when a kid gets you because you then know that you have completely screwed up when some snotty nosed kid maybe a quarter of your age and intellect has managed to catch you with your pants down and not only that, has the nerve to laugh.

Last summer, the middle school my kids attend put on a “graduation ceremony” for the eighth graders who would be entering high school in the fall. All things considered, the kids were well-behaved until they were presented as the graduating class of whatever. As the middle school principal continues to speak (his first mistake) all hell breaks loose as large beach balls are magicked from nowhere and batted around the auditorium like catnip-filled mice. The principal stops in mid-sentence, looks up, and makes his second mistake. He says, “Hold your balls please.”

Needless to say, “balls” is repeatedly repeated through all the various means young teenagers have at their disposal—mostly by coughing—as laughter stampedes its way up to the podium from the seats in the auditorium and tramples the poor man standing on the stage.

As soon as he said it, he knew he screwed up. I could see pain in his eyes as he tried not to let his poker face slip, standing there with his pants down. I know. I’ve been there. I can empathize. But empathy will not pull us from the holes we dig for ourselves. That we must do on our own. That, or with the help of someone carrying a ladder, possessing a good heart.



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