Monday, December 23, 2013

Discovering Empathy

Last night, my husband and I were cleaning up a storm getting ready for company and to put up the tree. We had just put Isabella to bed a little while ago. When we shut the vacuum off, I heard sobbing coming from her room. I admit, my first suspicion was sibling rivalry. That the older daughter had said something to make the younger one cry. This is pretty common, as you can imagine, but was not the case. I stepped into the room and Isabella was simply weeping inconsolably. It broke my heart! The little female Tortie cat, Lightning was curled up at the end of the bed and Isabella was sobbing and petting her. Lightning loves Isabella, she sleeps with her most nights and Isabella is gentle and sweet with all the cats. This was the kind of sorrow that calls for a mom to get in bed with her little one and hold her until the tears are lessened, so that is what I did. Amidst the sobs, I asked her what could possibly be troubling her this much. She finally confessed a little. "A long time ago, I did something to Lightning that was really mean. But I didn't know any better. And now I feel so sorry." I stroked her hair and kissed her. "Well, it's pretty obvious to me that Lightning has forgiven you. She sleeps with you every night and cats won't go near you if they don't like you. She's in your room right now because she loves you." "I know, but I never should have done it. It's terrible." "What did you do?" I asked. "I don't think I can tell you. I can't say the words." "Are you afraid I'll be mad at you and you'll get in trouble?" Isabella nodded silently and a fresh torrent of tears let loose. I held her close and told her that whatever it was, I would forgive her and Lightning had already forgiven her, so she really could safely tell me. She was still very reluctant. I thought a minute and then made a decision. There are times when you must reveal your flaws and your humanity to others. Yes, even your children. We are not perfect beings and I know that my daughter looks up to my "cat behavior" as an example. I am always, always kind to my cats. There is always joy in my voice when one of my kitties comes in the room and there is always room on my lap. In all things, I feel loving towards them. Of course, they know when the squirt bottle is coming... but it's a rare thing nowadays. Mostly, I can clap my hands and say "No" and they will stop doing the thing they are doing and life moves on but most of my time with my cats is spent loving and adoring. All my kids model this. They are as loving and gentle as I have showed them and you can see it is genuine. But last night, I could see how much pain my poor baby was in and I had to let her know she was not alone in her mistakes. So, I decided to crawl inside her pain and share my own pain and guilt with her to make her feel safe and not alone. Here is the story I told her. I have had cats my whole life, from the day I was born, there was a cat looking at me. (Really, there are pictures!) But when I was a little kid, I chased them, I pulled tails, I giggled when they ran. I also petted gently and lovingly but I had to retract my hand from a scratch more than once when I did something the cat did not like. All of this is rather normal kid behavior and nothing remarkable, but there is one day that sticks in my memory as a defining moment. We had two Siamese cats, Sappho and Rasha. Sappho was very sweet, she did not display the usual temperamental crankiness that Siamese cats usually show. She was loving and warm and very amiable all the time. I don't know what got into me this day, but I can only describe it as the actions of an impulsive four year old, but I thought I wanted to see what happened if I picked her up by the tail. So, I did what curious and foolish four year olds do. I picked her up by the tail. And I could tell I hurt her... a lot. I immediately regretted the action. Honestly, I can't believe she didn't claw the shit out of me, but she just ran away when I put her down. That moment snapped in my memory as the day I knew I had to change. I told Isabella that was the last time I was mean to a cat or any animal. I could barely live with myself. I knew I had hurt a family member. Someone I loved so dearly and deeply, I was incredibly ashamed. Something clicked that day and I realized strongly that you get what you give. And if I ever wanted a cat to love me back, I would have to just be kind every day, every time. And if I did that, then maybe, maybe she would trust me again and forgive me. So, I set out on a mission to love that cat. From that day on, there was nothing but loving and gentle hands, soft words, no yelling. And slowly, she came to trust me and then to love me. When I was nine years old, we moved to a new house and I got my own room. That cat slept with me every single night, she would come to my room and scratch and meow at the door and I would let her in and she would not leave until breakfast time in the morning. Sappho wouldn't sleep with anyone else. So, I told this story of cruelty and redemption to my daughter who was feeling so terrible about herself and after I was done, she opened up about the thing she had done. She had shut up Lightning in a desk drawer a long time ago. While she was remembering doing it, it occurred to her that the little cat might have suffocated in there and she was overcome with remorse and pain, fearing how terrible it would have been had she lost her furry friend. I told her I was very proud of her for learning a lesson and in spite of her mistake, she was now growing to be a more caring kid, but most of all I told her to forgive herself for her mistake, that the cure to that is to realize your error, learn from it and never, ever do it again. I told Isabella "Lightning has already forgiven you, I have already forgiven you. Now it is time for you to forgive yourself. Those are not wasted tears, those are tears to remind you what you have and for you to value it. But your heart is open now, and you have learned what you need to learn." Sometimes you have to open yourself up to others and reveal something shameful in your past to make that connection. I wanted my baby girl to feel safe revealing herself to me and to know I had my own mistakes to live with. That learning and growing from them is so important. We are very lucky that our actions did not result in more serious pain and that we were able to take our lessons without more serious consequences. And I am grateful for my daughter's tears. She is gaining empathy and discovering emotional depth. Those are good reasons to cry. But mostly I am grateful I was able to soothe her and comfort her and let her know she is not alone in this world, even when she makes mistakes.

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