Empathy is a superpower

Whew. Well. So here we are. Seemingly overnight, everything’s changed. Like many working families, we’re now mostly sequestered at home, fending off cabin fever, and trying to work from home — something I’ve done for a long time, but never like this — and also supporting our children’s heroic teachers by trying to corral our three-ring circuses in front of iPads and worksheets.

I’m explaining why we can no longer go to the playground or hug our grandparents. (“Viiiiii-rus” or “Ger-rrrms” my children drily intone.)

I’m typing in between hastily constructing peanut butter sandwiches and fielding “I’m hungry” cries every 30 minutes as though I have a pack of newborns (who can also walk and destroy the house in a nanosecond).

It’s a bid for attention and love and caring while I try to also finish my work assignments, cruise the news and also keep my own feelings — which are swinging wildly, too — under control, at least sometimes. (I’ve snapped. I’ve cried. Today.)

The kids haven’t been in the routine that has sustained our entire family for a very long time — and now we’re starting a new normal.

While I go on and on about being the new Depression Grandma (reusing tinfoil and harping about food waste), I wonder what these lessons are imprinting upon little baby brains: Will they see themselves as vectors of disease forever? Will they shun hugs one day — just out of habit?

I can’t even bear to think of it.

Speaking of that, as an empath myself, I’ve struggled most of my life with how negatively empathy is painted — like I am just too much of a total, pathetic wimp if I cry when I see a stray dog or when a song just hits me the right way.

You should always help if you can find a way to help. If someone takes advantage of your goodness, that’s on them.It took me a L-O-N-G time to accept that this is just the way I am — and that I can harness it for good.

Sometimes it’s hard to be an empathetic person. You get hurt. People don’t always return the consideration. But it’s really the only thing I hope my kids learn: It’s OK to feel deeply. It’s a good thing to try to understand someone else.

The events that are shaping my children’s lives — not just the coronavirus, but also the current political climate — are rooted in many ways in an empathy crisis. The other night Ruby, age 7, was talking to me about … well, something. I was a little tuned out, mm-hmming along, trying to finish up an assignment as she got ready for bed. I tuned back in just in time to hear her say, “But if someone is homeless and you can help them, you should, right?”

Yeah, baby. You should, is what I told her. You should always help if you can find a way to help. If someone takes advantage of your goodness, that’s on them. And even though empathy hurts sometimes, making the choice to harden yourself against life is a far greater hurt.

Making the choice to love, to under- stand and to then take action is a far more courageous path.

A superpower, even.

Despite a big, bad world that constantly tries to convince us that the only way to make it through is to toughen up, I think the only way through is softening our hearts.

Understanding. Love. Accepting that your reality may not be the reality of someone else’s life.

Be good to you. Be good to others.

Don’t get me wrong: Take no prisoners with BS and burn it down when necessary. But fight back from a place of radical love — with everything you have.


Katie Dohman lives in the Twin Cities burbs with her three kids, two pets and one husband. Follow her adventures at instagram.com/dohmicile.