“I am becoming water; I let everything rinse its grief in me and reflect as much light as I can.” – Mark Nepo
Last week there was an open house at school so all the kids could meet the new principal and find out their teachers. Before we had a chance to check the official list, the 2nd grade teacher that Miss O wanted to have saw her and said, “Yay, you are in my class!”
This was great news – two of her best school friends were also on the list and she was thrilled. Except as we walked away, a dad of one of her good friends gently said to me, “There are two O’s this year and I think your daughter is in the other class.”
Devastating! We checked the official list and he was right, she was not in the class she preferred. Her body mirrored her mood as she went from elated to deflated. I watched in horror as she crumpled even as she tried to hold it together in the crowd.
Just bearing witness to this made me feel terrible. It was as if had taken on the disappointment for my daughter’s 2nd grade hopes dying. And this happens not just with my kids but in other relationships too – I feel the heart ache of my friend going through relationships troubles. Or the exhaustion of another friend who didn’t get the job she wanted.
I suspect I’m not alone in taking on the feelings of others that I care about. As I listen to their experience, I can feel myself take on the rise and fall of their journey. Long after I’ve left them or hung up the phone, I carry the echo of their experience. It goes beyond being an empathetic listener because I’m carrying an emotion that isn’t mine to carry.
Which is a bit ridiculous because it’s a feeling of how I would react to having the same experience which is more or less meaningless. That is to say, my feelings may or may not match those of the person who is actually going through it.
So, I don’t think this makes me a better parent of friend. In fact, I suspect it diminishes my effectiveness. Thinking about the Buddhist Tonglen practice where you imagine a specific suffering in the world and you breathe it in, there is also the completion of the practice where you breathe out relief for everyone experiencing that suffering. It’s a full circle practice. Looking at it another way, the river doesn’t hold on to the water that flows through it.
This reminds me of every mountain guide I’ve climbed with. First, their stuff is well-organized so that they can be efficient and also carry a lot of gear for the group. They don’t often carry stuff for the climbers but when someone is really struggling, they will take part of their load for a time. However, they always give it back when we get to camp. They don’t keep carrying it on top of their own load.
At the school event, Miss O was upset and her first reflex was to go back to that teacher she wanted to tell her that she wasn’t in her class. Once she did that, she was able to move on and meet the teacher she’s assigned to for 2nd grade. Her new teacher is also lovely and nice.
Miss O moved on much more quickly than I did as I still feel echoes of that disappointment. I’m trying to learn from her example and shake off the feelings that I don’t need to carry for those I love.
Do you take on the feelings of loved ones? How do you shake them off?