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Weeds: An exercise in empathy

To make coffee in our kitchen on one foot and using a walker, you need to shuttle things to intermediary spots along the way. Between the sink and the coffee maker is a table and a cupboard. You shift the pot with water from one to the other to the other while hopping on your lone leg. You need both hands on the walker to hop-step.

I learned this after Achilles tendon surgery. I partially tore my Achilles last spring but didn’t know till an MRI in September. Then it was a matter of not tearing it completely during harvest, which I was lucky to do. After some time in a splint and a boot, I hope to be healthy by planting.

Someone asked, “Aren’t you supposed to be athletic to tear one of those?” Very funny.

Besides making coffee, there’s a bunch of activities I took for granted a week ago that I don’t now. It’s a short-term inconvenience. I know I am blessed to: A. have access to health care, B. be in relatively good health, and C. have a home and spouse to make this easier. Not everyone has these.

It does cause me to think about those who struggle every day from annoyances like an ongoing pain to major life-altering disabilities. Now and then I hear of someone suffering one of those, and think, “Oh, that would be tough to live with.” I might spend a minute imagining how difficult life would be in that state, and then move on.

For a few weeks as I hobble on one leg, I’m given the chance to feel a little deeper what life with an affliction would be.

I had time while my injured foot was elevated to think about my dad. When I was twelve, Sylvester lost his right hand to a combine’s straw chopper. I have vivid memories of that day. After that, it was just part of my life to have a dad with a prosthesis where everyone else had a hand. I blame my inattentiveness on the self-absorbed teen years that followed.

I wondered about those days after the accident. At the time, my folks had cows, laying hens, sows, plus crops. There was lots of manual labor, all designed to be done with two hands. Yet there I am a few years later, working with my dad who adjusted to a million different tasks with a hand and a hook.

I’ve thought about the days I don’t remember when my parents learned to deal with their “new normal,” to borrow a current phrase? I learned later there was tremendous stress on the both of them. Older brother Dale helped out as they made hard decisions. This was 1968. Margins in farming were thin and backup plans didn’t exist.

How is to learn to strap on a milking machine with a hand and hook? Or working a shovel and pitchfork? My dad probably used those every day since he barely walked. With two hands. Gathering eggs? A metal hook was useless there; you’ve suddenly lost half your capacity.

As I was thinking these, it occurred to me that I was feeling empathy for my dad. Perhaps I was fifty years late. Some things take time.

Empathy is different from sympathy. Both are valuable but have distinct purposes. Sympathy involves feeling sorry for another. My sister recently passed-away, and my family appreciated sympathy cards and messages. Empathy might lead to sympathy, but not necessarily.

Empathy is putting yourself in someone’s place. It takes imagination and effort. It means stepping in another’s shoes, sandals, or maybe bare feet. In their very place. It’s one thing to say, “Oh, that must hurt.” It’s another to try to feel that hurt. To put that sensation on your skin and have your nerves react. Not just pain, but things like another’s frustrations and anxiety. As I put myself in my father’s long-ago place, there were all those.

Someone said of the songwriter John Prine, “He had the gift and the curse of great empathy.” I suppose that’s right; it is both. Once you put yourself in another’s stead, responsibility comes with that. Empathy is difficult, but it can be core to relationship with another. Caring, humanity, compassion grow from it.

The ability to empathize is always useful. But some things here and now make it more so. As our nation wrestles with historic racism, the ability for enough of us to empathize with someone who is a different color or class or lives in a different place might be our only chance to make things better.

Can a 64-year-old rural white guy know what it’s like to be a young urban black man constantly surrounded by people suspicious of him? What it’s like to walk into a store and have security follow you and white people shift over an aisle? Most people I know have health insurance and as nutritious a diet as they want. What if that wasn’t the case for my relatives and neighbors? The schools around here are good. What if my kids attended a school with decaying walls and corroded pipes?

I can never fully know those sensations and that life. But empathy can move me beyond, “Why don’t they just get a job like everyone else?”

Also, in this time, I think there is value in imagining life in the skin of immigrants and refugees. The “curse” of empathy is you can’t take the easy path. It is easy to see them as a lawless horde of people-not-like-us at the border. It’s becomes difficult if they are human beings.

The smallest amount of investigation reveals that whole other truth. The truth is the immense majority of those seeking asylum and refuge here are good and decent people. People who love their kids and seek a safe and healthy place. Like me. Like you.

What’s it like to live in a place where gangs threaten your wife when she goes out? What does it feel like to have no opportunity to work to support your family? How difficult is it to be compelled to leave the place you know for a place you don’t? Only to be met with something like military force rather than an understanding and helpful border presence that should be that of a great nation?

We hope our leaders have this skill of empathy. Regardless, I need to hone it in me. A couple weeks on one leg helps.

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