Rosie and I are leaving the Christmas Farmers Market, our bags plump with beets, potatoes and carrots. A raven croaks from a nearby rooftop, eager to be the beneficiary of holiday crumbs.
“I’m sooo hungry,” Rose tells me.
Really? I think. Weren’t you the one who ate two breakfasts before 9 a.m.? And then a notion spontaneously beams into my mind as if deposited by the raven. “Hey, sweetie? I’m wondering if you’re actually craving something else and it feels like hunger? What do you think?”
Rose leans into me and says quietly, “Attention.”
I contemplate the hour we spent browsing farmers’ and artisans’ stands, how we held hands while sampling raw sesame candy, conducted sniff-tests on homemade soaps and watched the ukulele concert from one shared chair. Oh, and I also remember her small hand tugging insistently at mine when I ran into friends, engaging in adult conversations that stole my attention away from her.
There are two story lines here. One is my own, which includes my desire to be present to the sensory experience of the market, to the spontaneous meet-ups that are a cherished part of this close-knit town and to the blessing of being with my daughter, this 10-year-old who won’t always choose to spend a Saturday morning with her mother. The other story line is Rose’s, which includes her desire to feel connected to me, to know that she matters enough to hold my attention. How do we get all these needs met?
I believe in empathy as a first response to painful feelings. Empathy lets us know we’re heard and understood. It’s like getting a safe escort out of the amygdala – the brain structure where we experience fight, flight or freeze – and into the prefrontal cortex, where logic and decision-making prevail.
In the comic book Urban Empathy: True Life Adventures of Compassion on the Streets of New York, author Dian Killian describes empathy as “understanding what others and ourselves are experiencing and, by doing so, easing pain and suffering.”
This won’t happen by explaining to Rose that I only chatted with four people. Or, by offering a vacant apology and promising to do better next time. Nor by delivering a well-intentioned lecture about how expectations can cause suffering. Giving empathy is not dependent on me agreeing with her or granting her wishes: It’s a voice reaching through the darkness to say, “I see you. You matter.”
It helps that Rose can articulate her need for connection. Despite 12 years of school, we’re not taught this most basic skill of identifying our needs and having the confidence to share them with others. Instead, we often unconsciously try to get needs met in ineffective ways. (i.e., the younger sister who wants to be included and so scribbles on her older sister’s artwork to get noticed. Or the adult who wants connection and spends hours on Facebook looking for it).
“Rosie, sounds like you were wanting more of my focus and attention. Maybe you were bored when I chatted with friends? And I bet it was hard not knowing how long the conversations would last.”
“Yeah,” she replies, sliding her body gently into mine, her body language articulating trust.
“I can see how that feels disappointing, how you were excited to have my companionship.”
“I just wanted youuuuuuuu,” she croons, holding the note, opera-style, signaling that the serious talk must end now. I sing back to her, a song about going home and playing our favorite card game. She laughs and then looks around to determine that no one important is witnessing the embarrassment that is your mother, singing, besides the raven.
It turns out that there’s no solution needed today. Sometimes, just being heard and understood can take you out of a painful emotion and into a rollicking card game.
Reach Rachel Turiel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her blog, 6512 and growing, on raising children, chickens and other messy, rewarding endeavors at 6,512 feet.