I attended a funeral this weekend. It was for my father’s cousin at whose house I spent so much of my childhood. We weren’t particularly close–I haven’t seen her in years. However, I understand towards the end she became a shut-in, and when she died, she died alone. That made me very sad.
Like many families, there are some nasty skeletons in our closet. And like many people who misplaced the handbook on How to Be a Perfect and Super Awesome Person somewhere along the line, our approach to dealing with those skeletons has been to board the closets up, throw blankets over them and try not to think about it. My family and I are big on emotional health and maturity that way.
The result of that approach, of course, is that while my immediate family (parents and sister) are fairly close, our extended family has been seriously fractured along certain lines. Because my father was named executor of the estate, information came to light during the weeks leading up to the funeral that caused old wounds to tear open again and bleed fiercely. It’s been a trying time, replete with the entire spectrum of human emotion.
But death is a funny thing.
Family members we thought lost to us forever through choice and memory turned up at the funeral. We have an opportunity to repair those fractures. It’s early yet, of course, but I believe that with time, we may be able to accomplish that. With the loss of one loved one, we may have gained two more, and I’m grateful. My only regret is that a woman had to die alone to make that possible.
Through my reading on empathy, and trying to find the right place for it within a leadership setting, I’ve found a ton of material. The bulk of the information suggests that we are hard wired for empathy, and that we can use empathic connections with one another to better all mankind and build a better planet, and buy the world a Coke, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
It’s a nice message, but it’s a load of horseshit. Empathy, while important and valid, is only part of the equation.
Throughout our lives, we make choices. They’re not always the best choices…in fact sometimes they’re downright terrible. Sometimes we choose to hang on to memories that are painful, or cling to a course of action because we’re afraid of the consequences of doing otherwise. While empathy may be a strong connective force, sometimes choice and memory are stronger.
The fact is, we’re all human beings first, and that aforementioned handbook, sadly, doesn’t exist. All of us on this planet get up out of bed every day and try to do the best we can. Sometimes we have days where what we touch turns to gold…and then there’s days where what we touch turns to a big pile of steaming excrement. The latter tends to be what we dwell on. And all the bad feelings associated with it–fear, anger, jealousy, contempt–we tend to cling to because to do otherwise would be to accept that we created a mess. Shame and denial are empathy’s perfect foil.
How many relationships do we sabotage, at work or at home, because we’re hanging on to some dirty old shoe like it’s a precious gift?
Making mistakes is a part of living. Sometimes they’ll be little ones, like behaving badly at a party…and sometimes they’ll be whoppers, like making a bad investment call and wiping out massive chunks of your savings (I’ve done both–yay for me!) There will be consequences to and lessons from every mistake you make…but you’re deluded if you think you can get through life without making them. The thing is, once you’ve paid your dues and learned your lesson, all that’s left is a dirty old shoe. Is it really a better keepsake than the companionship of those around you?
And for people who insist on holding grudges against those who’ve transgressed (or even just their associates)…you know what? You’re holding a dirty old shoe, too.
While this post is partly for my family, it’s partly for you, too. If you’re hanging on to a dirty old shoe, one day you’re going to look back on a life of decay and find yourself filled with regret. Don’t let tragedy be the thing that causes you to realize that. Throw that shoe in the garbage and move on.