With uncharacteristic temerity and characteristic self-absorption, I once asked a friend to tell me what my greatest weakness was. After I withstood her initial deflections and evasive maneuvers, she finally told me that I had “a lack of empathy”.
It wasn’t much to work with – she wouldn’t or couldn’t elaborate, and I wouldn’t or couldn’t understand. To me, empathy was kindness was niceness unto others, and I did my best to provide that. I wasn’t mean. I helped when help was needed. And I smiled a lot, because it was effortless and seemed to make people happy.
There was peace; enemies were nonexistent, friends were available, acceptance overshadowed disdain. This pleasant assessment, coupled by her quick hedge that I was still a good friend, pushed her critique to the back of my mind under the delusional pretense that she was simply wrong. Desire for improvement had met with the reality of action and returned empty-handed to the easier, myopic, status quo.
* * *
Years later, my empathic flaw was challenged in a more aggressive form. It was the final act of a breakup and she repeatedly proclaimed that I had no understanding of her, or human beings in general. Blinded by fury and frustration, I countered with exaggerated claims of my innumerable acts of kindness and sacrifice for which she’d been the primary beneficiary. Bridges burned and the curtain closed on what, up to that point, had been the most intimate relationship of my life.
In the aftermath, in the ashes of her own hyperbole, lay gems of truth that, even as the embers flared out, I refused to fully acknowledge. The words were buried in my subconscious, alongside those of my friend in the past. Again, I dismissed reality as wrong.
* * *
For whatever reason, I assumed that the young, lovey-dovey “honeymoon phase” of a relationship had a definite time period – once those first three months were over, you were officially out of the freshman stage. The trial phase after that first quarter, where things supposedly get rocky, passed seamlessly without a hitch. In this new relationship everything was much more compatible and carefree, like there wasn’t anything we needed to work through. Unsurprising in retrospect, I was blindsided when realizing we’d only begun breaking out of our shell a year and a half later.
The facade of peace, the serenity I strove to maintain, began to crack. I wanted more. I wanted depth. In a destructively clumsy way, I told her as much.
A mere mortal would have called it quits but she was more than that. Inundated by internal and external forces with every reason to jump ship, she stayed the course. With that unwavering resolve – so foreign to me – she single-handedly kept us afloat. For her efforts, I am incredibly grateful and unworthy.
She would never admit it, instead blaming a lack of self-respect, but I believe the real answer behind her resolution lies in the concept that has always eluded my grasp. Were I in her shoes, the frailty of my surface-level friendly creed would have collapsed during the months-long storm – the reasons for which surround an instinctual tendency for self-preservation. Her vision sees beyond the limited horizon of the individual, her actions come informed with the layers of emotions of each party concerned. There was an understanding she had about me that I myself was unaware of, a consideration that people are more than assumptions of “this is something he or she would want.”
To make others happy doesn’t mean to ensure their comfort at all times, especially when the definition of comfort comes from a generic understanding of needs. Instant gratification, the pursuit of constant placation, feels hollow compared to the meaningful insights provided by those able to step back and assess the situation from every angle.
She, among numerous others I’ve had the great fortune of being associated with, possesses this quality in abundance. I’ll get there.