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Imagination = Empathy

8 Comments 20 May 2010

My "special" girl & a friend w/ a great IMAGINATION!

My youngest child is “special.”  Okay, yes, all three of my children are special, but she is the “in between the quote marks” special.  She is ten years old and her life rubs up against mine every single day in ways that make me a very different person than I would have been without her.  One of the things that she has brought to my life has been a new desire to use my imagination.

When she was born my husband and I were in what people down here in the south call “ministry.”  In other words, we were doing religious work and getting paid (not very much) to do it.  There is a certain expectation of those who work in the church in most parts of the world, or at least that would be my educated guess, but here in this southern culture, it is particularly interesting.

When difficult things happen, someone dies, there is suffering or in our case…when you have a baby that has special needs, there is an expectation to say the right things and make sure that everyone knows that you are good with it.  Some call it the “God’s will” way where you are expected to immediately attach goodness and God to even the most painful and sad realities of your life.

At this point in my life, I was guilty of having those expectations of others if they experienced suffering and in turn, when I found out that my baby was mentally retarded, it was all of a sudden my turn at the plate.  Now don’t get me wrong, I initially hit it out of the park.  I said good things and went right along with my “ministry” life as if the pain and the heartache that I was experiencing was a part of some fragility of character that I needed to hide, not the honest reaction of a mother grieving a painful loss.

I was able to turn my life’s seeming tragedy into a nifty little devotional to be shared with whomever.  This lasted for about a year and then my son, who was age five at the time, was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes.  I remember vividly driving to the pediatricians office that afternoon and thinking to myself in some sort of prayer to God, “You have got to be kidding me!”  It was no joke, but it seemed like one, a sad and sick joke that was being played on my children.

There were so many people who had insight to give me back then, and honestly, still today.  Some of the things they said to me are not worth repeating, but I bring this up because it was then, facing a very uncertain future with my baby girl and knowing that my son would live his life with a horrible disease, that I realized what was so hard about all of those comments.

They lacked imagination.  To the contrary, comments that were life-giving came from those who imagined what it must be like to be in my shoes.  Most of them really had no idea, but whether they were conscious of their imagining or not, that is what they were doing.  They were considering that even the most profound words could not soothe a mother’s broken heart or put her world back together again.  Indeed, Humpty Dumpty had fallen and the pieces that lay around me were so scattered and seemingly random that I hardly new where to begin with picking them up.

But they imagined…some came along side, some hugged, some cried, some were silent, but all who were able to hold me up were on some level imagining what it must be to be me.  I didn’t know these things then, but over the last nine plus years I have had many opportunities to offer the same imaginative care and I have come to understand how valuable and beautiful it can be.

It wasn’t until I heard J.K. Rowling’s commencement address to the Harvard graduates in 2008 that I felt like the words imagination and empathy came together for me.  Take the time to listen to her, it is a lovely lesson about failure and imagination.  Since then, the two words, empathy and imagination have been inseparable for me.  When I heard Rowling’s address the first time, I wept.  It struck so deeply within my heart and resonated with something so strong in my soul that I couldn’t help myself.

Is it true that our lack of imagination is directly proportionate to our lack of empathy towards others who suffer?  I know that many of those in the religious culture that was dominate in my life back then were “well meaning,” however, I do believe that a lack of  imagination is the throne of judgment, it is the seat of scoffers.  It is that “narrow space” that Rowling paints for us, that “mental agoraphobia” where we “refuse to know” that keeps us from showing empathy.

Learning to imagine has given me more empathy for those who I would have thought I had nothing in common with before.  What I have found instead of differences are a multitude of similarities.  The most foundational – we all suffer the gaps in this lifetime, the pain and the suffering and the brokenness of life.  Regardless of our circumstances, suffering levels the playing field and we are reminded that we are all simply human beings.

My life with my daughter who is “special” is a constant reminder to use my imagination as I need that from others so badly.  So few of us truly know what goes on in a person’s life, behind closed doors, the pain and the grief that they suffer as the result of whatever Humpty Dumpty that has fallen in their lives.  My life is possible on so many levels because of those who took and still take the time to imagine what it is like to live in my skin.  Oh, that I would use my imagination well and show the kind of empathy that has been shown to me.

Just imagine what it must be like…and feel your heart’s capacity to care grow.  You may not be able to put any Humpty Dumptys together again, but everyone can use an extra hand to pick-up their pieces!

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8 Comments so far

  1. Judy Helfand says:

    Jorja,
    I can tell you for most of my adult life I have tried to imagine what it must be like. My father became ill when I was just over 3. He was expected to die in six months, but lived until I was 29. But this is not the same as being the parent of a child with an incurable/chronic physical and/or mental condition. I would like to share two personal stories with you. Neither puts me squarely in your shoes, but I know what you are asking of us.

    About 20 years ago I learned of Batten disease. We owned a country inn in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. One summer day a family arrived from Ohio to spend a few days. They had three sons, the youngest being Bret(about 5) who was confined to a wheelchair. I was somewhat shocked as our inn (built in 1865) didn’t have any wheelchair accessible rooms, at the time it didn’t even have private baths, but the Killen family didn’t mind, they were going to enjoy their summer vacation. My oldest son was about 9 at the time and he became friendly with their middle son. On the second day of their visit Mrs. Killen came to me and asked if I would consider trading children for half a day! She explained that they wanted to take their sons to Storyland, an amusement park in Jackson, NH and she wanted to know if she took our son Aaron to Storyland would I be willing to take care of her wheelchair bound son. It was then that I learned all about Batten Disease http://bit.ly/d6jnGx. See also http://www.bdsra.org/index.html.
    I took care of Bret that day, with the help of my visiting mother and my younger son, Daniel, who sat with Bret and talked quietly to him. When the Killen finally checked out my little boys cried, as did theirs. We learned that day how precious life is and we wept when Bret’s father talked about how Bret had seemed a perfectly normal child until Batten’s was diagnosed. Every night for many years each of my sons said a prayer for their family. It was just a few weeks ago that I learned that Bret passed away on May 31, 2004, he lived to be 20. Here is their Twitter page http://twitter.com/BDSRA

    My second story began in late 1974. I was dating a third year medical student who I came to learn had a younger sister who at age 4 was diagnosed educationally mentally retarded, complicated with epilepsy. She was two years our junior, so at least by age we were peers. For about 3 years, while the dating relationship lasted, I remained friends with Ginny. I was her maid of honor when she married a man who suffered from cerebral palsy. Time passed my relationship with her brother ended, but I stayed in touch by mail with their parents. By late 2006 both parents had passed. I did not hear from my ex-boyfriend, but instead from Ginny. She was kind enough to write me about her mother’s death and to tell me how much I meant to her mother. I wrote a letter to Ginny, and now for almost three years Ginny writes to me every month. Simple, newsy, inquisitive letters…telling me about her life. She has been married 3 times and widowed. She lives in her parent’s home with a neighbor lady that she grew up with. Ginny is now 58 and I can tell you I look forward to her letters. She closes each letter: Your sister, Ginny. She is “special” to me and somehow I knew that from the first day I met her.
    Thanks for writing and thanks for listening.

    • Jorja says:

      judy, what beautiful stories about how life has taught you to imagine. truly, you and i are no different than my m.h. and your ginny. we all have broken spots, some are just more visible than others. their lives teach you and i so much and make us richer for it. thanks so, so much for sharing your stories with me. i do believe that it is in telling our stories that we grow and become connected to one another in the most meaningful ways. i really appreciate you and your input.

  2. kate says:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hAgF364s2yI

    i hope this link works… i think this song is beautiful and fits with the words you are sharing!!

    xo.

  3. Andy says:

    Frederick Buechner said, “Compassion is sometimes the fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.”

  4. lois says:

    Just finished reading Jodi Picoult’s new book, House Rules which gives a glimpse into life with Aspergers syndrome. It’s a beautiful chance to crawl inside the skin of a mom and her son, and interestingly, his sibling’s viewpoint. You might like to check it out.

  5. Becky says:

    Loved this post. Loved the truth found in it. I hear you sister and shout my “hear hear” to the world . . . and myself. I pray my heart continues to soften to others more quickly than runs to criticize.

    • Jorja says:

      bec, yes, it is a real theme for me these days. the whole issue of empathy. thanks for the words of encouragement.

  6. Kelly Martin Bagby says:

    This is the entry that sucked me into your blog and now I just can’t quit reading! You have so beautifully (and accurately!) put into words what I have been wrestling with since I turned 40! Looking back at the goals that I had set for myself as a child/teenager, I found that I had technically “met” them by the 40 mark. Now what? Thank heavens, I’m not finished with life;) but what do I do now? Your blog has encouraged me to allow these wandering thoughts and just to wallow (or “waller” as we would say in West AL) in them until I know who I REALLY am and then decide not just to “live with it” but to embrace it and be proud to share who God made me to be (freaky life experiences and all).
    Now…back to the entry at hand. (Obviously, I’ll never be a tweeter because I have too many words to share.) I find it interesting the perspective that you have given between imagination and empathy. Let me give you this twist on it. I have been uniquely made so that I can’t NOT imagine what it is like to live with a special needs child. I have realized this “gift” when I was in college. Special needs children have lived with me and I have lived with them and their families. My heart belongs with so many families that I have known in the past 20 years that I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to “connect” adequately with my own “typically-developing” child. In fact, my heart hitched itself to your family the day that I saw you at my elementary school when MH was just 3. So…I guess my point is that while some people may never be able to imagine what it’s like to have a special needs child there are others who can’t NOT imagine what it is like. I pray that your path continues to cross with the latter:)


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“I am a frayed and nibbled survivor in a fallen world, and I am getting along. I am aging and eaten and have done my share of eating too. I am not washed and beautiful, in control of a shining world in which everything fits, but instead am wondering awed about on a splintered wreck I've come to care for, whose gnawed trees breathe a delicate air, whose bloodied and scarred creatures are my dearest companions, and whose beauty bats and shines not in its imperfections but overwhelmingly in spite of them...” Annie Dillard

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