Some moments in my life had such an impact they shaped the person I am today. Experiences forever imprinted on my heart and soul that changed how I see the world. I am not the same woman I was twenty years ago, and I imagine I will not be the same woman I am today twenty years from now.
They are the "before" and "after" of my life. It has become a way to mark time. When you have lived in the same town for many years instead of giving directions using street signs you describe how to get somewhere by what is close by. You know what I mean, "Drive down past Granny's Diner, take a right at the playground, and it's the third house on the left with the blue shutters and the porch swing."
Instead of thinking about life in terms of years I find myself referring to things in the before and after. Some of those experiences have been so life changing, the before is almost hard to remember the before as I dwell in the after.
After I became a mom.
After I had two miscarriages.
After Joy became a part of our family.
After my daughter ran away.
After I started a non-profit.
Some of the experiences have imprinted on my heart because they were traumatic and sad, and others were beautiful and lovely, what remains the same is my life was permanently changed after them.
These experiences have also allowed me to transition from sympathy to empathy. The definition of sympathy is feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else's misfortune. If I am sympathetic I can feel sad for someone else, but that sadness comes from a place without understanding. There is a subtle and slight differentiation between the definition of sympathy and empathy, but it is profoundly impacting.
The definition of empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It's those moments when you can look at another human and say, "I understand how you feel," and truly mean it because you have experienced something similar. Understanding is powerful.
It can be the thing that pulls you up when another person knows where you are coming from, it can be the silver lining when you are trying to process why something difficult is happening in your life, and it is the commonality you reach for so you don't feel alone.
If your marriage is struggling you don't ask advice from a teenager. You look for someone else who is married, who will understand its joys and challenges. When you are grieving to be told, "I understand," by someone who has never experienced what you are going through can feel like a slap in the face, but those same words from another soul who has walked in your shoes can make the darkness feel just a little brighter.
Empathy is very powerful. Each of our stories are different and we have all walked different paths. I can relate to some people and their stories, but I haven't personally experienced all things. For the stories I haven't walked through I rely on sympathy. But when I am looking for hope in my personal darkness, I am drawn to the people who can have empathy, who understand.
I would imagine living through our current season will change many of us. We won't look at grocery shopping, church services, school, or social interaction in the same way. Hopefully this time teaches us all to be thankful and grateful for the people in our lives and the community we live in.
I'm looking forward to days when people in my small town stop to chat with each other again at the grocery store. I can't wait for $4 Tuesdays at the local movie theater. My heart misses church services and hugs from friends. I long to sit in my parents kitchen and visit with them while my kids play with their cousin. I will do a dance of happiness when it's time for my children to go back to school.
My heart longs for the sense of fear to be lifted, for the sick to be well, and for families who have needed to be apart to be reunited.
Beyond looking forward to enjoying life returning to a sense of normalcy, I am struck by the opportunity for us to experience empathy in a way perhaps some have never been able to before. During this season many of us have encountered new situations:
Limited supplies at the store
Isolation from friends and family
Loss of work
Closure of school
Canceling of sports and events
Other people making decisions for us
This has created feelings of fear, uncertainty, and mistrust. When we are afraid our body responds one of three ways, fight, flight, or freeze. It's a natural defense mechanism that kicks in to help us fight off danger. In this process our bodies release adrenaline and cortisol; our muscles tense, our heart rate elevates, and our body prioritizes what our bodily functions are most needed to respond to the threat.
We aren't meant to stay in the fight, flight, or freeze for very long. It's taxing on our bodies. The continual release of adrenaline and cortisol combined with the prioritizing of certain bodily functions can cause us to not feel well. In this state, functions like digestion are moved to a lower priority. This for a prolonged amount of time would cause discomfort.
As time has gone on, we have all felt this to a certain extent, living stuck in our bodies natural response to danger. As we begin to see our country reopen we are hopeful for the fear to begin to ease, health to be restored, and our economy to be re-ignited.
But I don't want us to miss this opportunity to understand in a small way how children who have survived trauma see the world. Those feelings of fear we have carried around with us for several weeks, they have carried for weeks, months, years. They have changed schools, gone without food and other essentials, been isolated from friends, and had other people decide their future.
Living with these fears and uncertainties can cause a prolonged state of fight, flight, or freeze. Many of us know trauma can be caused by abuse and neglect. But it can also be caused by multiple foster homes, separation from biological family, and even being adopted.
So let's pause and take a moment friends. Let yourself feel the discomfort, pain, and insecurity of our current situation. Remember this feeling. Remember this time. Remember this fear. Then tuck it away to be pulled out when you encounter children and youth who have experienced trauma. My hope is it will enable you to see past their behaviors, stigmas, and words to the root of it all, fear. And after walking through this season of life in a pandemic you will be able to open your heart in a new way to them and be empathetic.