We’ve been sending out a family newsletter at Christmas for many years. I thought this year’s newsletter was going to be a tale of trauma, drama, and happy endings in the Lococo household. In reality, the trauma and the drama were overrated and the happy ending turned out to be the recognition of the precious gift of ordinary life.
This past spring, I started having an irregular heart beat while exercising. On June 2 I learned I was born with a heart defect that often goes undetected, with the primary symptom being sudden death. The recommended treatment: coronary bypass surgery. The surgery took place on September 9th and the recovery process lasted well into the Fall. Needless to say this was the topic of our attention for most of the year. I expected the story of my heart surgery would fill a space in the newsletter consistent with the amount of space it occupied in our memories of the year.
My perspective took a significant turn on November 15. A 17 year old girl we know through our social networks was involved in a head-on collision with a driver going the wrong way on the highway. Like me, Anna encountered an unexpected, life threatening situation. That’s where the similarities end. As I reflect back on the heart defect I discovered this year and compare that discovery to the single moment in time that is likely to shape Anna’s life for many years to come, I realize my plans for our 2015 Christmas newsletter were largely narcissistic indulgence.
The challenge I found myself facing was how to put my own experience into context along side Anna’s on-going experiences. I truly faced a life threatening situation this year. The fact of the matter is that situation was (permanently) resolved through a medical procedure that is routinely done on a daily basis. Anna, on the other hand, just got home from the hospital last week and is now sleeping in a hospital bed in her family’s dining room.
In unpacking this challenge I found myself realizing that since I am completely recovered from my surgery and, in reality, healthier as a result of correcting the birth defect, chronicling my experiences is little more than an exercise in storytelling. Anna’s experiences are on-going with many unresolved questions. Her story is interactive and is dynamically affected by the responses of everyone involved, including seemingly pedestrian bystanders such as myself.
When I think of Anna and those around her the following ideas arise:
- There is little Anna could have done to avoid the terrible accident she was in – and yet, feeling sorry for her doesn’t seem to be the appropriate response.
- Anna has every right to wonder “Why me?” as long as she doesn’t fall into that ugly space of “It must have been supposed to happen.”
- Anna has earned the status of “Super Hero” in demonstrating the grit and determination required to get to this point in her recovery. And yet presuming Anna will not face dark times as a result of what she has been through is naive and inconsiderate.
- The challenges Anna’s family faces in ensuring she receives the care she needs in order to recover from her accident are seemingly endless and overwhelming. To forget that “Things are the way they are because they got that way.” diminishes the fact that bureaucracy (of all sorts) can be a humongous barrier to health and well-being.
Applying the lessons
As I come to the end of this reflection I find myself focusing on the differences between storytelling and soliciting a response from people. I am also struck by the balance between empathy and sympathy.
Here are my take-a-ways:
- Good storytelling brings the reader/listener into the story.
In seeing themselves as a part of the story, a reader/listener is called to place themselves in the place of the subject(s) of the story.
- In the best stories, the reader/listener will carry the story in their heart long after the details of the story are forgotten.
- When we hear a story of challenges faced by others our responses are often a mix of sympathy and/or empathy.
- Sympathy often takes the form of: “I’d hate to be you”; “I’m happy that didn’t happen to me.” Empathy takes the form of “What would I do/feel if I were in your shoes?”
- Sympathetic action often takes the form of helping to fix a problem. Empathy calls us to walk hand-in-hand with others.
As I recognize how narcissistic my story of drama and trauma was this year I feel called to empathize with Anna and her family. I just don’t really know how to do this. It seems step one is to reach out my hand.
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Copyright 2016, Dan Lococo. All rights reserved.