On Thanksgiving weekend this year my family served dinner at the Russell Home as we do every month together. The Russell Home is an amazing nonprofit in our town that serves children and adults with disabilities and their families by providing them with housing, meals and schooling. My family has had the privilege of serving dinner once a month to the residents who live there full time. On this particular occasion we were also being given a tour because the facility had recently undergone some extensive and much needed renovations and we were finally seeing the final product.
As we moved from room to room, our tour guide, a woman named Vantrese, was telling us various stories about the renovation and some little tidbits here and there about the residents themselves that we served each month. Towards the end of our tour she told us a tragic story of how one resident in particular had come to live at the Russell Home. It was a heartbreaking story of loss and grief and when she had finished I noticed she was crying. She was visibly still moved by this tale of sadness and was crying on behalf of the resident who still cries herself over this event although it had occurred many years before. And then I saw her give a quick shake of the head and the tears were a little drier. The moment had moved over her and she had emotionally moved forward. She didn’t get stuck. She didn’t wallow. She didn’t invite us to wallow with her. She felt the hard emotion and then she took one step forward out of it and back into the room with us.
This moment has fascinated me ever since. I have been on a great mission to find empathy this last year. Sympathy I have loads of but empathy, the ability to sit with someone else in their pain, has often alluded me. (If you would like a hilarious and yet accurate definition of the differences between sympathy and empathy, check this little tidbit out. Yes, it’s Brene Brown. Don’t even look shocked.)
In my quest to unlock the mystery of empathy, I have felt my emotional pendulum swing widely. I went from being a complete avoider of hard emotion and a total proponent of the “let’s just fix it” methodology of life to someone who would just get stuck in the sadness, stuck in the hardship, stuck in the struggle, be it my own or someone else’s. This, as you can imagine, did not make me a pleasant person to live with. In my journey to find emotional balance I have been living on the hard side of the emotional tracks. In fact, I started joking that I had an evil twin called “Dark Reagan” and when she came out to play she could take a roomful of joyful, happy people down quick. Much like that old SNL character, Debbie Downer…but not really nearly that hilarious.
So this moment with Vantrese fascinated me. It was like watching someone stand before a big wave. Not the terrifying tsunami kind that spells certain doom, but the “just big enough you aren’t sure what’s gonna happen but you know you probably won’t die” kind. At worst you might end up spit back up on the sand, pulling tiny sea creatures from your hair. During her story, Vantrese was standing before a wave of empathy for her friend. And she allowed it to completely envelope her…for a moment. And then the wave passed on and she was still standing, enjoying the sun and the ocean and finding herself thankful for the entire experience in the water. She didn’t breeze by the hard emotion she was feeling and she didn’t allow it to take her under either. She simply gave it it’s due and then moved on.
I think another reason this moment with Vantrese has intrigued me is because we are in the nitty gritty of Christmas. And if you read my previous post, you know that I have been trying to stay very present in this hustling and bustling holiday season. But in recent years Christmas has represented more a time of loss than of joy. I seem to be feeling more acutely the losses I experience throughout the year, whether its a loss of family members or of a goal I was hoping to achieve but didn’t exactly make or just a general feeling that life isn’t quite how I want it to be right now. In years past it has become harder and harder to be merry and bright with everyone else.
And you know what? That’s ok.
Now I know the last thing you need is another under qualified blogger telling you it’s ok to be sad at Christmas so I will spare you that song and dance. I will simply say it’s ok to be a little disappointed, a little bummed or a little sad. BUT my challenge to myself, my encouragement to myself, is to feel the losses for a moment and then watch that same wave of grief leave me whole and intact and ready to enjoy the best parts of this glad holiday. Let the tears come, remember those I have lost, feel a little scared and uncertain about what the future may hold, feel those hard emotions wholly and then, let it wash over me and pass by. It may take longer than a moment sometimes, but I have found that when I engage my hard feelings, they do way less emotional damage than when I stifle them down deep and smile bravely. When I ignore them I ultimately end up pulling starfish out of my ears back up on the beach. When I embrace them or even welcome them, I get to succumb to the vastness of them, marvel at their power and then watch them rush to the shore without having dragged me with them.
It’s a new theory I’m testing this Christmas, but I’m betting it might just work out ok.