My dad left only about two hours ago, and already I have realized that I accidentally left my handicapped parking placard in his vehicle. I suppose this is one accident less than the two from his visit just weeks before, when he accidentally took my spare keys and accidentally left his air mattress and pump. Regardless, it seems there is always something left or taken without us having meant for it to be so.
While he was here I accidentally got him a parking ticket. I meant to move the car from one street to another, since one is free at night and another is permitted parking only at night. I was late in my duty and saw the ticket writer moving along the street as I went out to move the car. Too late. The ticket was already written and he wouldn’t take it back and offer a warning instead.
A few hours later we were off to lunch in the backseat of the vehicle of my friend and his husband. It was snowing out, and we were all pleased that the “snow” function on the new Range Rover worked exceptionally and kept us from sliding into the intersection where the road was slick from precipitation. Unfortunately, the vehicle behind us was not a Range Rover with a snow function to choose, and we were struck from behind. Nobody was hurt, thankfully. (Though I have had a headache since and am inclined to claim that being jostled has thrown my vertebrae off center–but know that my physical therapist can just push those babies back into place next session and likely fix the problem, so I’m not ready to file an injury suit just yet.) But it took some time to exchange information, and our friends needed to go to the police station after lunch and file reports for the collision, and will need to take the car in for repair.
Accidents happen often.
And not just the collision kind, but the kind where you aren’t paying attention to your things or your words or your actions with enough focus to make certain that you aren’t saying or doing something that is potentially harmful.
My dad and I also discussed, at length, the type of accident where people’s words are accidentally stupid or hurtful. Because people don’t seem to pay close enough attention to their surroundings to understand that they are leaving something out. And generally the thing left out is compassion for a person’s situation–empathy.
There are so many statements that have come across our paths that are unintentionally hurtful.
I understand how you feel. You must be lonely. When are you going to find a new partner? You should [insert obvious medical advice we have already tried]. Your partner/parent/child is in a better place. You’re young, so you you’ll find someone new.
All of these things are meant to be kind, but they accidentally cause even more wounds. They aren’t helpful. And what would be helpful is simply to not try to identify or give advice, but to say that you don’t understand, but that you are ready and able to listen, to perform household tasks, and to help in practical ways that give a person time to rest, heal, and grieve in the ways they need to do so.
As a chronically ill individual, I have a whole set of ways that people accidentally offend, atop the normal process of grief and singleness. I have people who tell me to get well soon–which I won’t. I have the constant onslaught of home remedies and stories of “my [loosely connected acquaintance or distant relative] who did thing X and was healed of their illness, which are unsolicited and annoying, because I have a team of 13 specialists who oversee my care and some raw honey is not going to be the thing that all of them missed as a magic cure. The other night my cousin said, “If they keep looking around the doctors are going to find things wrong.” Later my dad laughed at me as I recounted that statement and how badly I wanted to reply that medicine doesn’t work that way, and I am not a used car. Things must actually be wrong for them to diagnose me with an illness. They don’t make up illnesses so they can bill you for a new pancreas! It was another accidentally, really weirdly, delivered comment that made me feel like my situation isn’t one that others take seriously or treat with validity and respect.
I am not saying at all that my cousin, or others, don’t take me seriously or treat me as valid and respected. Quite the contrary! But somehow, when it comes to these statements, their care for me and their understanding of and care for my situation don’t align. They accidentally get it wrong.
So, how do we change that?
I wish I had a clearer answer. Because I can shout empathy, listening, and validation from the rooftops all day long, and people will say, “I’m a great listener and your feelings are totally valid.” But the disconnect remains. I think there is a big difference between hearing what a person says and feeling what a person says.
My dad is of the mind that until you go through grief of this depth, you can’t understand and will continue to view things in a way that is incomplete–and, therefore, will continue to say the wrong things.
I’m not of that mind. I’m not of that mind because I know people who suffer physical pain and still don’t have empathy for my physical pain. And I’m not of that mind because I have a few friends who are deeply aware of what I am feeling, even when I am doing what I believe is a good job at hiding my true feelings–they see through my act. I’m not of that mind because people who have suffered similar experiences to mine can shut down in ways that I cannot, and can ignore the past in ways that I cannot, leaving no room for empathy, even though they know exactly how it feels to experience that pain.
Instead, I think that we all have the capacity for empathy, but very few of us have the strength of will and the courage to open ourselves in that manner. Because doing so means deliberately seeking to feel the pain of others. It means to share in their sorrows–not just on some surface level where you offer the accidentally insensitive platitudes, but truly feeling that sorrow. And why in the world would we want to add sorrow to our lives??!!
But the thing that is important about sharing in sorrows is that you also get to share in joys. When you share in the sorrows in deep and meaningful ways, you also share in joys in deep and meaningful ways. So, letting in the suffering means letting in the celebration. Letting in some darkness means flooding the space with light! Who would want to miss out on that??!!
The people who see me in my darkest moments also are invited to share in my brightest and most glorious moments. And those are really fabulous! I pour so much love into the people who love me truly that it is almost ridiculous. I’ve probably loved some people so well that it has frightened them away, because they were not accustomed to such unfettered, unconditional love and it felt awkward or foreign. But those people also dealt with me in the depths of my despair, which was extremely difficult, I know. And the reward isn’t likely to be equal to the expense, but that is just the way that life works out, I think.
The risk in life is often greater than the reward. But that does not mean that it isn’t worth it. That doesn’t mean the experiences and the people and the adventures are not worth it. Because the idea that we shouldn’t move forward unless the reward is greater than the risk is one that was manufactured by the modern man, not one that has always been a part of humanity. It is an accident of our economy that we weigh the risks and decide that the safe bet is to not open up. We keep closed our bank accounts, our doors, and our hearts because the risk seems to outweigh the reward. But in doing so, we have made a grave error. Because life happens in the accidents, more often than not. We cannot plan for every outcome. We cannot keep “safe” by keeping distant. And keeping ourselves closed off from everything and everyone just makes us more susceptible to being left alone in our tragedies, should they arrive accidentally.
We need to open up and find that empathy and feel for others and with others. We need to share sorrows and joys. We need to stop weighing what we think will be the consequences and throw the risk/benefit analysis out the fucking window. Life isn’t a series of rewards assessments. Life is often a challenge. But it is often an adventure!
So go out there and make your accidents be ones that aren’t based on selfish, closed-hearted living that causes offense to those who are suffering. Make your accidents be the kind that are derived from throwing caution to the wind and running headlong into feelings and actions that let you know the deep lows and the exhilarating highs that life has to offer us as human beings. Because that is amazing and wonderful, and, I believe, what we were designed to experience.
Use that empathy. Feel deeply. And experience a full life.