Friday, January 27, 2012

Inventing Myself with Compassion and Empathy


There is some quote, maybe from Fitzgerald, that the test of a great mind is having the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind and still function. I remember looking that up a few years back because I thought I was being asked to do something impossible. I was talking with my therapist who was suggesting that I could be angry, maybe even furious, but still feel love at the exact same time. Not for the first time I told her she was crazy. And not for the first time, months if not years after she first told me something, I came to understand what she meant.

Yesterday, during another therapy session (you have no idea how many therapists, professional and otherwise, it takes to keep a man like me going) I was asked to think of the time when things started to click for me. The question was about a transformation that I can feel now, only dreamed about before it happened, and couldn't quite notice as it was happening. Looking back I can see that the shift became noticeable last summer right before I taught summer school. I don't know what pushed me over the edge and into this new kind of living, but I'm happy about it nonetheless.

So what's different?

Well, for starters, I can be angry and in love at the same time. I can be anxious without it taking me for a ride. I can experience something without reacting to it. I'm not saying that I do any of these things very well yet, but they are possible for me now and, just a year ago, they weren't quite. More than anything, I am beginning to develop a sense of compassion and the ability to empathize.

It surprises me that I have been able to function at all without a better sense of these two things. It's remarkable even. And I guess that should make me feel good, that I'm a high-functioning sort of broken person. I have carried myself along without these two things which now seem to me utterly essential.

All of this comes up for me today as I am at the halfway point of the school year. Monday will mark the beginning of the end of the year. I have just five months of school remaining and I wonder, at the end of that time, what I will have figured out and where I will be going.

My mission this school year has been to invent myself. I won't say re-invent because I don't know if I have ever been active enough in the process of becoming to call what I have done an invention. I've pretty much gone along with what has been coming. Sure, I've made decisions, I've picked myself up from some tough times, I've done very well. I'm not trying to ding myself here. Instead, I'm saying that I can be more active and more aware of the life I'm creating. That's what this year has been all about and now that I'm at the halfway point, I am in the process of cataloging some of what I've learned.

I'm not sure that compassion and empathy are marketable skills for me, but I'm not sure they aren't either. Certainly they have formed the backbone of the things I write here. That's a start. They are also the bedrock of the new ways in which I teach high school students. They shape how I am as a husband and a father.

Beyond all that, I'm finding that self-compassion and self-empathy (if there is such an idea) are helping me turn around the way I view myself. If we're going to think of things in terms of the market, my new way of thinking seems to me a much better wage-earner than the victim I was just a year or two ago. Victims might be employable, but they don't go far on their own. I want to go far and then I want to go farther.

I'm both nervous about and excited by the question, "what's next?" I'm not sure what is coming, what I'm going to create. I don't know what I am in the process of becoming, but it's good. I know too that I have more tools with which to work. I can hold two ideas in my head and I can feel anger without it walling off my love. What a strange and wonderful power. I know that I can walk on the legs of that and get myself to somewhere new. I know that I can forge a life with that and with the power I find every time I write on.