The Little We Know that Keeps us from Empathy

Earlier today, my Mom told me a story about my grandfather from when she was in college. Over the course of several months, he began to grow increasingly paranoid for the family’s safety and eventually began to hear voices in his head. That lead my grandmother to intervene when she feared his unfounded paranoia was getting out-of-control. Probably one of the hardest things she ever had to do was sit at the kitchen sink washing the dishes while she watched the local sheriff confront my grandfather in the garden to take him to the mental hospital. He stayed angry with her for a long time over that one.

Somehow, I never knew that story. The grandfather I knew and loved was perfectly healthy, and dozens of years had passed since he’d overcome that difficult time in his life. Of course, I knew he’d been in the war and struggled with that on a psychological level. I knew some of his co-workers were, as I understood it, downright mean and conniving. But we like to keep so much of our past secret. We only share the good stuff, especially with the grandchildren.

It’s not surprising, really. Mental illness still has this big stigma surrounding it that it really shouldn’t have anymore, and I think the reason it should lose that stigma is because I don’t know anybody – literally anybody – who I couldn’t classify as mentally ill at some point in his or her life. Seriously, hand me a copy of the DSM and give me some time to get to know you, and I guarantee you I could use a little armchair psychology and diagnose you with multiple illnesses you have or had at some point in the last few years.

When I left for Morocco, I did so following in the footsteps of that same man, my grandfather, a man who had served in World War II in Casablanca, and I took really seriously that I was living out this legacy of someone I so deeply admired. By the time my service had ended, I felt like I had placed him on a pedestal. I wasn’t following in my grandfather’s footsteps anymore; I was following in the footsteps of an ideal I’d fabricated – a person who had never really existed. There were times in my service where I felt like I had failed my grandfather, days when I didn’t feel like I was able to live up to the man I believed he was, but when the end of my service rolled around, and I looked back on it and gave it some thought, I finally realized that there was more to the man than the ideal I’d made him into. I wrote at the time,

In hindsight, he would probably be eager to hear my stories about Morocco, would probably listen intently with an occasional nervous laugh, and he would be deeply, deeply embarrassed to know how much I admired him and how much I wanted to follow in his footsteps. And he would be proud. No matter what. Because that’s what grandfathers do, and he was especially good at that.

By the time you’re old enough to be able to dissect and analyze your world in any meaningful or mature manner, your grandparents have already lived to be at least sixty-five, probably older. That means that you’ve known them for only a fraction of their life. To us, they become “Grandmother and Pop,” or whatever other epithets we have for them. Those titles are so momentous and so limiting to who they are in reality. I remember thinking when I hit my 19th month in Morocco, the same amount of time that my grandfather had lived there, that 19 months is a really long time. In that short span of time, I was sure he had seen and done so much, just as I had, but by the time I heard his stories about the place, they were short, five-minute stories.

One of the things our parents and grandparents and ancestors pass on to us are just that – short five-minute stories. Little quips about their life, about some of their most monumental or perhaps even their silliest moments. And yet, embedded in those five-minute stories are months and months of other stories or of every day mindless banter. Of struggles and laughter and tears. And those come out of just the stories we know. There’s a thousand others kept from us, locked away forever, perhaps.

I guess I’m coming to a place where I feel it’s extremely important, even crucial, to unlock those stories when and if we’re given the chance. Hearing the story about my grandfather’s struggle with mental illness didn’t make me ashamed of him. It made him more real to me. It made me like him more. It made me be able to identify with him, because he was no longer perfect the way I’d kept him in my head. That’s forgiveness to me – learning to see another person and all their faults not as faults of their character but as complex struggles that are bigger than them, bigger than us all. And then finding empathy in that struggle.

Mom closed her story by telling me that she went to visit my grandfather in the mental institution, and one of the first things he said to her was, “You can go back to college and tell your friends your daddy is a crazy fool.” Tearing up, she gave the biggest smile she could and responded, “I’ll tell them I’m proud of my Daddy.”

You can only find that kind of love when you’re willing to look beyond the epithets and labels and five-minute stories and let people be the complex, struggling human beings that they are.

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1 Comment

  1. Pingback: To Cherish What’s Old | saunterings

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