My older son asked me a question a few days ago: What is the difference between empathy and sympathy? He already had been thinking about the question, and had some answers of his own. He’s been reading some books (he’s an avid reader) on various topics – some for school, some on his own. He has been working on a speech on “communication.” It sounds like a pretty vague and over-done topic, but he has some ideas he wanted to share on the subject in forensics competition this year.
He told me that he came to the conclusion that so much of our communication and interactions in life should stem from a root of “empathy.” He is working on his communication speech to center on this point and explain how fundamental he finds it to be. He says that empathy is not only important in our communication with one another, but also is the reason behind so many of our decisions and actions. If we do not have empathy, it will impact our consequent decisions. And, he shares examples. What he and I had a discussion about from there was where does that empathy come from in the first place? We went back and forth a bit on that.
My older son is a thinker, intelligent, questioner, curious… and it’s hard for me as a parent to say these things without sounding like one bragging about one’s own child. (I can’t share things like this with most other people because it can get awkward. Even if I simply want others to also be happy and share in the joy of who he is (or my other kids), people start comparing, even among family members… It’s just difficult. I know I’m not responsible for how others react, but I’ve gotten an earful of how bad others feel if their kids haven’t accomplished the same. Honestly, I can’t help it, if my kids worked hard on something, I’m not going to apologize for who they are, and what success they might have achieved. What others don’t know are the many hours of hard work and sweat that goes on behind the scenes, and how many failures occur before the more visible “success.” They don’t know so many things; even difficulties and sadness and loneliness all my kids have gone through at various times and seasons. So I keep it to myself, and much of what he has achieved is not known.)
I have to acknowledge God has gifted him with a sharp and curious mind. I’ve had my challenges keeping up with him through the years. He loves to read and is constantly engaging himself in learning. He likes economics, philosophy, theology, and literature. He used to fill up notebooks with lists of all kinds- information he’d collected himself. Now he doesn’t have time for that, but he loves to learn. A few weeks ago, I asked him to explain Bitcoin to me; I admit I’m having a hard time understanding the whole concept of Bitcoin, and that makes me feel old. He keeps up with current events; one of the reasons is that he competes in Extemporaneous (current events) speech competition and that keeps him accountable to staying up-to-date with current events and issues.
He’s buying used books to build up his very own library of books that he wants to keep for himself, such as fiction and classics and other books he’s enjoyed. Plus, he buys used books on economics and religion just for his own personal reading. But, he is a normal teen, just like any other (he enjoys movies, he plays sports). He does not spend a lot of time on a phone, nor does he play video games. I have not had to tell him not to spent time on his phone; it has not been an issue for him.
He recently specifically wanted to watch some Disney movies from the past 10-20 years (he probably wouldn’t want me to share that); we re-watched Lion King, Aladdin, Moana, Beauty and the Beast and some others and then went on to analyze themes and such and then began pulling out examples from those movies. Then we were on a Robin Williams movie watching spree, at his request. Before that, he watched a series of movies directed by Christopher Nolan. He listens to classical music (he loves Beethoven’s 5th symphony) while studying, but he listens to a bit of many different kinds of music. He found Matis Yahu on YouTube and also introduced me to an artist named Kutiman (I like his mashups).
My two boys will also spend time laughing at some crazy youtube videos of star wars scenes with funny songs dubbed in. They both also watch studio c videos; well, now it’s mostly the younger one. They are doing a duo interpretation speech together for forensics competition this year and they chose the story of William Tell. My youngest son is quite good with foreign accents and voices, so he plays about 4-5 different characters. They are just hilarious to watch and they are having a blast with it. I have laughed so much (they are deliberately adding in humor). The words of this type of interpretive speech are taken verbatim from the book, but they can add humor with their accents and actions. It’s so much fun for me to watch. They’ve had fun working together – and they’ve also had to learn how to work together in this capacity, too. Good opportunities for character development. :)
Sometime in the past year, my older teen and several other young men (his age and a couple of years older) decided to form an online group (they are spread out in several different states) to discuss ideas and current events. They have a name as well; it’s called “Junto.” They’ve met once so far to discuss the topic “Faith and Reason,” a topic of their own choosing. The next topic they’ve chosen to discuss is “Antifa.” They create a google doc, contribute thoughts and ideas, and then schedule a google hangout to discuss. They did all of this on their own. These guys started off just chatting one another regularly and decided to make it more organized, since their emailing chain of responses was getting long and out of hand.
I think it’s wonderful that these young men have found each other and are interested in talking to one another, sharing ideas, etc. It’s not easy to find like-minded individuals sometimes, and I’m thankful these intellectually curious young people have found each other. I was talking to another mom (whose son is in the group) who has worked with gifted and very smart children when she was a teacher in the past – and she understood how much these kids need fellowship and finding others they can relate with, and others who challenge them. I so much appreciated that this friend understood; she has a child the same age in a similar situation. This is the only other one in the group that live in the area, though not too close by (and his mom happens to be a dear friend of mine), and I’m very thankful for that. She has two sons, in fact, the same ages as my boys (and a couple of younger girls, too). These teens sharpen each other, ask questions, aren’t afraid to disagree. They share a common worldview (Christian) but they do not all agree on everything. It’s such a great group of kids!
They all met each other through our speech and debate league. What I hope is that they can at least continue their meetings this through this year. A couple of the young men will go to college next year; one is already in college. Although it’s great to have this group that can connect online (and they chat each other as well), though, my son lamented he has no real close friends nearby that he can hang out with, friends like these. He can probably find a few guys to go to a movie with, but regarding real close friends he can talk to, he recently expressed a wish for that. (We all need friends like that in our lives, so it’s no surprise!) My daughter was fortunate to have that; my boys have not had that. Something to continue to pray about.
His questions about empathy vs. sympathy made me step back and realize where I need more empathy in my own life. This is one of those (many!) humbling moments when parenting is shaping you and your child is instructing you and (and they don’t really know it).
And now for some raw honesty in the post… My kids would quickly be able to list for you my many faults and flaws and share with you how imperfect I am. Lack of patience is one of those faults. I yell when I shouldn’t. I get impatient too often. I speak too soon without listening first. My sin comes through audibly when I’m driving and I speak aloud to other drivers and all the things they are doing wrong. One spontaneous visit to my house and you’ll see how imperfect my house is. Being aware of and praying for empathy would help me in many areas.
I see enough sin in my own life and the depth of depravity in my own heart, and know that the same exists in all of us. I have no preconceived notions about anyone else being perfect; we are all made in the image of God, we’ve all fallen, we all have our own faults and issues, and we’re all loved by God. God can and does redeem any one of us. So, I have no ideas that anyone else is better or worse… though it is true that some people might be more pleasant to be around, and some people might hit it off more than others, and we may find more in common with certain people than with others.
I have surely disappointed others and shattered others’ real (or presupposed) image of me, and it will surely happen again. (More humbling moments.) And yes, I have also been disappointed, in the other way. I think it is a fact of life; if we have close friends, we will disappoint one another. I think it’s not a bad thing: it reminds us that God is the only one who is All and can be All for us (though this does not negate the need for close friendships and relationships.) If we live in fear of disappointing one another, everyone would be living in isolation and without friends or relationships, which we clearly need, as God created us that way. I am not hiding from this, but I do think that close friendships are harder and harder to develop nowadays.
I do sometimes feel like an idiot for putting myself out there (out here), though. It’s kind of weird (and feels kind of trippy right now, if I can be honest). I have no idea what readers are thinking. I am wondering how weird others think I am. I have no idea. In this moment, I have no idea if I’m being ridiculed, being made fun of, or if I’m being attacked, or understood or misunderstood. It’s so hard to know, and I sit in a state of confusion. I’m in the dark, wondering, surmising. I guess making a fool of oneself is always a possibility (a very real possibility). I don’t know. I have been sincere here in this space (as well as stupid and foolish).
If you made it this far, thanks for reading to the end of this off-the-cuff, quickly written post.