One Heart Feels the Other

Attention without feeling, I began to learn, is only a report.

An openness — an empathy — was necessary if the attention was to matter.

(Mary Oliver, from Our World, 2007)


My mother turned 91 on February 20, 2015, the day after being accepted into Long Island Hospice Care at home. I turned 68 last week visiting her in New York, engaged in the long good-bye. Mom is stable and not in pain at the moment, but she is fighting a battle she can’t win. There’s no more treatment that can make a difference, and there’s nothing more I can do for her except stay close. But I can’t stay in New York indefinitely; my family is at home in North Carolina. So I live with the inner conflict every day, wanting to be in two places at once. Sitting by Mom’s bedside, holding her hand, I repeat to her the mantra designed to comfort us both, “Whether I’m here in your room or far away, Mom, you know we are connected because one heart feels the other.” She squeezes my hand, blinks her eyes, and nods her head almost imperceptibly.

If Mom passes away when I am not there, I’m OK with that because we’re OK with each other. I have a less satisfactory relationship with my brother, Mom’s primary caregiver. It’s not unusual for the sibling doing the heavy lifting to resent the sibling offering support from a distance. And a hospice social worker I spoke to gave me perspective on Josh’s stone-cold behavior toward me. She said while I am already “in the muck and mire of grieving,” he can’t let himself go there yet. Maintaining anger toward me is one way he keeps those debilitating feelings at bay.

Over the past three years, since Dad died and we began our partnership of caregiving for Mom, I’ve felt deeply for the both of them. I’ve taken care of all the financial and administrative matters for the family so that Josh can focus on Mom’s immediate needs. I’ve visited regularly, sent gifts to them both, and tried over and over to communicate my appreciation and empathy for the burden of caregiving that he’s carrying. But his anger and criticism remain unchanged. I’ve struggled and struggled to understand why and what I could be doing differently, because I knew there had to be a kernel of truth in his rantings and lessons I could learn. But I couldn’t “get it.” I backed off to guard against aggravating him further and to avoid the pain of his abuse. This kind of worked in my favor, but the wanting to do better remained “unfinished business” that nagged away on an unconscious level. And then, in an essay on another subject, I read the quote above by Mary Oliver, and something gelled. An “aha moment.”

I realized that my way of paying attention to others has been light on empathy. While in the past I would have said, without any doubt, that I am very empathetic, suddenly I knew the depth of that self-delusion. It’s true that I am “sensitive,” resonating easily with what others are going through. But I can see also that when my being gets caught up in their moment, that hum of empathy is immediately encased in the drumbeat of my own deeper, less conscious, need to seek approval. Therefore, instead of just being present, being a non-judgmental vessel into which they can pour their high or low passion or unburden themselves by speaking of their dilemma, instead my mind shuts out their feelings in favor of finding something I can do to make a difference.

I have always given myself the benefit of believing purity of motivation: I want to help; I can’t hold myself back from helping when I feel someone is suffering – offer an idea, a suggestion, which I am so agile to concoct. But the truth, I realize now, is that in that very instance, I have denied them what they need in favor of getting what I need: the status or brownie points of being helpful. My need for approval trumps their need to be heard with deep attention and true empathy at the core level. Mea culpa.

I think I’ve struggled with knowing this on some level for quite a while. But knowing and being able to change are two different things. In my world, I don’t give credit for “trying.” When I was teaching middle school or doing management development in industry, I would ask people to let me see them “trying to raise their hands.” Of course, the room before me would be filled with fingers in the air. “No,” I’d say, “I still can’t see you trying to raise your hands.” Puzzled looks stare back at me. “I see you raising your hands, not trying to raise your hands. There’s no such thing as trying; in most situations you are either doing something or not doing it.” In my life and relationships, I am guilty of doing too much in some ways and not doing enough in ways that really matter.

The quote from Mary Oliver that triggered this insight, which had been struggling for clarity for so long, came from a longer piece on “How Habit Shapes Our Inner Lives.” I have personality traits that have caused me to fall short on meeting others’ needs when they need me the most. I feel sad about these shortcomings and the hurt and damage I’ve left in my wake as a result of not being different, not being “a better person”. But I can’t get stuck in the pit of dwelling on a past that can’t ever be undone.

I am moving forward, but not “trying to change”: there is no such thing as trying. I am actively reflecting on self-improvement and seeking models, mentors, lessons to assist me in my efforts to behave differently. I am consciously practicing being present with others’  feelings, without doing more than what they ask for. I accept and forgive myself for previous failures because I am not and never will be perfect. Similarly, though it is often unexpected and sometimes hurtful, I accept the push back from others I have and may continue to receive as I struggle to establish new habits. Each of these others is just like me, a complex personality–equally imperfect, equally worthy of forgiveness.

The patterns of our lives reveal us. Our habits measure us.

Our battles with our habits speak of dreams yet to become real.

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