On Thursday evenings I teach a graduate-level course for those seeking their Masters of Arts Leadership. It is always a stressful traffic-filled commute from my workplace to campus, as well as having complications with another class using the classroom up until our official start time. Last night, already running late, I struggled to get the AV/computer files to cooperate in order to start the evening's lesson when I noticed my cell phone vibrating. I thought about ignoring it as I had a group of students hovering to ask me questions regarding their assignment due next week. I recognized my daughter's cell number and tried to graciously excuse myself but not in time to get to the call before it transfered to voice mail. Stepping into the hallway, it was the phone call/voice mail that every parent dreads. I listened to the message that started out with my daughter’s voice sobbing and imploring me to "please be there.” In her emotional distress she was able to verbalize that she had been in a car accident (she is a new driver), thankfully indicated that no one was hurt, but was so shaken by the incident that she wasn’t sure she could drive home. I tried to call her back and got a fast busy signal, tried again but couldn’t get a cell phone connection (I love those historic, thick-walled academic buildings), and by finding a place to perch while leaning against the window I finally got a connection and my call rang through. The helpless feeling of not being there at the moment of your child's need is surely part of the parent/teenage emancipation process, but I was relieved to learn that she had reached out to her boyfriend and his parents were on their way to drive her home.
I returned to my class and tried to pick up where I left off. My teaching style is to try and be as interactive as possible, but I was definitely off my game. I couldn’t concentrate, my wit and sense of humor had evaporated and I struggled to connect with the intellect and possibilities of the class. After a short break and a second check-in with my daughter confirming that she had arrived safely home, I returned to the class and shared that I had a personal issue come up and I would need to leave. I facilitated breaking them into groups for their final project and gave them the rest of the class time to work “on their own.” With an early exit, a defeated conscience and an emotionally weary disposition, I thought about how hard it is to be everything you want or desire to be. As much as you want to be there for someone, you can’t always make that happen. For me, I try to emotionally distance myself from those that I dearly love in order to be strong when they are falling apart as a valiant attempt at being their rock or their safe harbor. Instead, I often find myself being the sponge and taking on their pain and angst as if it was my own.
I can hear the virtues of the sympathy vs. empathy debate. Empathy by far is more validating, authentic, and can be more healing than sympathy because you can really put yourself in someone else’s shoes and that is a very real and palpable comfort. For me, the dilemma is that I experience the pain almost as if I have been in the first line of fire. There are times when I long to be sympathetic and understanding, staying in that rational and intellectual brain where everything is safe and I am protected from feeling any emotional distress. Instead, the empathetic me is at least able to pull off the comforting superhero role for a limited period of time, but eventually I find myself sequestered in my phone booth, choking on the emotional enormity of the situation, and in the end, without fail, I end up using my cape to blow my nose and wipe away my tears, if I haven't misplaced it all together. The good thing is, I am an expert at both cape cleaning and retrieval. Thankfully I have an honest track record of being resilient enough to sport that cape for the next heroic rescue. Perhaps that is what all parents do, put on the brave face, take on the superhero role to support and comfort our kids while simultaneously wishing for an automatic numbing device that would make these times easier. Yes, they need to come up with Bactine for Parents.
Needless to say, I am thankful that there are others around me that are willing to don the cape even when I can’t be there and I am humble enough to accept that my superpowers will not always be able to save the day as my daughter grows into her own adult superbeing. I still wonder what I will do when all the phone booths have disappeared. I guess us superheroes will have to find our capes and dry our tears under the full scrutiny of the public and the public will learn that we are no longer invincible. In fact, we never were.
© Kelly Tweeddale 2013