The Long and Winding Road to Empathy

I had a moment of self-realization this morning. It lead me to a truth I’ve more or less known about myself for quite some time, but let me start at the beginning. When one works as a scheduler, one becomes rather cozy bedfellows with chaos and frustration. There’s nothing quite like the feeling one gets at 7:58 a.m. on a Saturday morning when the care giver calls out sick from an 8am shift with a 24 hour client. I had to call the overnight care giver, who by this point had been up for 13 hours straight and ask that they kindly wait while I find a replacement for them. I spent the next two hours searching under every rock for an available care giver. Phone calls, e-mails, texts, Bat-signal, anything to find a volunteer to rescue the exhausted overnight person and salvage the shift. It was a crisp, raining and miserable October morning in Vermont. My stomach was tied in knots no sailor ever knew and I cursed the care giver who did this to me (and for those who’ve ever conversed with me, they well know the labyrinth of profanity I have to choose from).

Then I recalled a small detail from that phone call I had forgotten the first time around. You see, the care giver wasn’t calling out because she was sick, but because her son was sick. Perspective is much easier to obtain in retrospect. We all do and say things in the heat of the moment and while I was professional with the care giver, perhaps I wasn’t as kind as I could’ve been. After all, would I have wanted an employer to begrudge my mother or father for calling out of work because I was at home with a stomach bug or strep-throat? Certainly not. In my line of work it’s easy to forget that we’re only human, each of us prone to the same flaws and frailties as everyone else. I freely admit to having episodic tunnel vision while trying to fill a shift, concentrating with laser focus on providing coverage for the client, everything else be damned. At times this can be a useful trait for a scheduler but is by no means a positive attribute for a person.

The more I thought about it, the more I began to see this not just as a professional challenge, but a personal one as well. Many years ago I did something I’m not proud of, I destroyed my step-mother’s Bruce Springsteen cardboard cutout. I got drunk one night and put a bunch of holes in it. At the time I didn’t think it was that a big deal, just some piece of cardboard that did nothing but sit in our attic. It took me longer than I care to admit to really understand what I had done. To my step-mother, this wasn’t just some old memorabilia she dragged around and it wasn’t a knickknack she hadn’t gotten around to throwing away yet. This was a piece of her history, something that told a story of friendship and identity. I wrecked that piece of my step-mother’s history and did so for no good reason. The worst part of all was that I didn’t get how she could be anything more than annoyed, why this was hurtful. I could pawn it off on youthful foolishness but I knew right from wrong and I have to be accountable for that action, even to this day. Last Christmas I surprised my step-mother with two tickets to go see Springsteen live in Albany. Wouldn’t you know it, she surprised me right back and asked me to go with her for what would end up being an incredible night I will never forget. It could never make up for what had happened, and I never expected it to. Rather it was a gesture, to show just how much I really did love and value her.

For me this all circles back to empathy. Part of my experience living with Asperger’s has been confronting my capacity for empathy or, on occasion lack thereof. It’s not that I’m heartless, but I do find it is more difficult to get emotionally invested in things that don’t directly affect me. It can also at times be a struggle to understand and be sensitive to others feelings. Part of growing up is learning to come to terms with your shortcomings and your flaws. Personal growth (to borrow an old quote) is predicated on having the strength to change what you can, the courage to accept the things you can’t and the wisdom to know the difference. I’m not going to wake up tomorrow morning and have empathy come naturally to me, but being cognizant of that fact and knowing I’ll have to work at it every day is a step in the right direction. We can’t change our mistakes, as much as we might like to. What we can always do is learn from them. We can always try to do better by the people in our lives and, by extension ourselves. Growth, like learning, is a lifelong process and I believe that we should never stop trying to do either.