Tag Archives: family

Empathy Versus Excuse Making

I want to share an email exchange between Holden and myself that I believe is valuable:

Holden’s Message:

Dear Atticus,

Is it weak to empathize with my wife and the man she cheated with?

The anger books and in fact, practice of medication itself from a Buddhist tradition at least, focus a lot on gaining empathy for other people and learning to understand other’s suffering. The Bible teaches the same thing. Jesus’ philosophy was to pray for your enemy and turn the other cheek.

I keep being brought back to the same shitty thoughts. Because of the insane detail I was able to get off my Wife’s phone, I know exactly when she was with him. I can literally go back and remember my entire days, all the things I did those days, the things she and I talked about.

I keep getting hung up on it. I take a few steps forward, then another back. To deal with the anger, pain, suffering, sadness, etc, I have used a combo of Buddhist and Christian ideas. From the Buddhist perspective, I work on meditating on the pain points until I gain comfort then I work to put myself in my Wife’s and John’s (they man she cheated with) shoes. I work to ease not only my suffering but my Wife’s and work to not cause John any additional suffering in his life by interfering with him (basically just letting it drop and leaving him be).

I work to understand what they must have felt, how my Wife must have felt, why she did what she did. From the Christian standpoint, I work to forgive and let it go. I work to empathize. But then I seriously question if I’m just making excuses for both of them. Wrong is wrong.

Is empathizing in this particular scenario the correct path?

Anyway, just a thought. Not meaning to whine or rip off scabs on wounds that have begun to heal. It was more just a question I keep returning to that I wanted to share. I figured you might actually find it intriguing.

-Holden

My Response to Holden:

My Friend Holden,

I believe the portions of Christianity and Buddhism that you are referencing are the appropriate ones and perhaps the strongest assets both philosophies have to offer.

Forgiveness and meditation are tools that help you mentally adjust, not for your Wife’s and John’s benefit, but for your own healing. Ultimately you cannot heal and move forward without letting go of the past. You cannot let go of the past until you have forgiven. You cannot forgive until you utilize logic an reason to empathize and understand their situation.

This is the process – to gain understanding of all facets of the situation and become a master of it. Once you have mastered the situation, you can control it, let go of it, and move on. These are the reasons that forgiveness, meditation, and empathy are cornerstones of a healthy mind and spirit.

You shouldn’t make excuses for you Wife, but it is okay to empathize with her plight (for the reasons mentioned above). Excuses imply that you apply blame to yourself or on others and do not hold your Wife accountable while empathy implies that you hold her accountable for her actions, but apply higher game to truly understand the situation – thus have the capacity to move on.

Excuse making implies that you set yourself up to become a victim. Empathy implies a mindset of forgiveness, compassion, and maturity. Distinguish the two inside yourself during meditation.

– Atticus

The Value of Time Alone

For the past five years I have spent time writing everyday. A lot of that writing happens here on this blog and a lot of it happens in a personal journal I keep on a bookshelf at home. My journal is a small black leather bound notebook I bought for myself a few years back. I’ve since filled two or three of these little notebooks and always purchased the same one.

About a year ago I wrote in my journal that I was concerned that my wife and I were not communicating enough. I wrote down the reasons I thought we didn’t communicate and the places in life we were missing the opportunity to have an intimate conversation.

I remember writing in my journal:

“We sit in front of the TV at dinner and we play on our phones before bed. We don’t try to ignore each other, but after a few shows it’s suddenly time for bed. We check our emails then go to sleep. I wonder what she’s thinking…maybe nothing…I’m pretty much brain dead the whole time. We should talk more.”

After that my wife and I decided to have “No tech” dinners and evenings. Instead we sit around and talk, clean the house together, cook, and eat dinner. Just opening up a couple of hours to communicate with each other made a positive difference in our relationship.

It is interesting how small changes in your daily habits can change your life. All because of little time alone with myself.

I don’t believe in God. Should I attend Church for the benefits?

I am not a religious person. I don’t see any evidence that leads me to believe in God as described in the Bible. There are just too many things that don’t add up, too many things that I would have to consciously ignore, and I can’t do that.

My wife on the other hand enjoys the comforts of religion. I think part of her sees me as arrogant and foolish for ignoring that God exists. She’s no fool. She see’s the holes in the Bible as well as I do, but for her she feels it. My wife is an emotional creature driven by what feels right. She’s sensitive, artistic, and loving – all of this is why I married her. And part of me knows that church, the community, and the comfort would be good for her (and our relationship).

I don’t consider myself an Atheist though. I think to be an Atheist you have to be confident enough to say there is no God. I am not that confident. I admit the possibility of some higher being, a creative force, perhaps intelligent, perhaps (and more likely) something beyond our understanding – beyond out ability as humans to sense or perceive it. If there is a higher power I doubt (s)he has anything to do with our lives and unlike my wife – I don’t find much comfort in the idea (or going to church).

For the last 10 years I have been stubborn about attending church and sometimes about religion itself. When I attend church I see a bunch of hypocrites. I see a bunch of people who “believe” in a God, who has established these strict rules, but doesn’t follow any of them. I hate the idea of cherry-picking the parts of the Bible that are convenient. These are some of the things that bother me.

At Church there is an expectation that I believe and celebrate the God as described in the Bible. I see people around me praising God, raising their arms in the air as if praising the God of Thunder, and I feel like a hypocrite – like an idiot participating in it. I feel like a hypocrite for being in church and to myself for spending time (wasting time?) in a place when I could be doing something more productive.

I also know that focusing too much on your “feelings” is no way to make decisions. The reasonable part of myself knows there are two sides of this Church-equation so I break it down into pros and cons: Should I attend Church?

Pros:

1. This is a good community and support group for my Wife (and me).
2. There are a lot of good people in Church (great networking opportunity).
3. Churches provide many good resources (child care, athletic facilities, community).
4. Being known and liked by a large group could be beneficial politically and financially.

Cons:

1. My wife and child may rely on something that is not real. How will this affect their decision making? Is it healthy?
2. I will have to compromise my beliefs.
3. Church would mean a large time commitment each week.
4. The implications of exposing my family to a largely fictional belief system.

When I examine the costs and benefits of going to Church I find that it would probably be a net benefit to attend. I would gain connections, my wife would have a sense of emotional comfort and moral compass that she craves, there would be numerous social and economic gains, and my family would be surrounded by a group of positive and well connected individuals.

The down side is that I would have to accept that I am going to church for non-religious reasons. I also worry about what I am doing to my family. Is it evil to expose my family to a lie even if that lie is a net positive in their lives? Do the positive result justify the philosophical negatives?

What if I am honest with my daughter and wife? I explain that church is a positive social organization, but they should be critical of the teachings? Can you enjoy the benefits of church and ignore the teachings? Can you separate the fiction from the good lessons? I suppose you can – everyone has read Harry Potter, right?

If I made positive relationships, did good for the community, and used this new resource as an overall benefit to society would I still be an impostor? Would I be a hypocrite? Would I be wrong for doing so?

I guess the problem with being an ideological purist is that it doesn’t leave a lot of room for pragmatism. I’m not an ideological purist (I wouldn’t know which ideology to be pure about), but I’m also not a manipulator or liar. So what should I do?

Cornerstone

As a youngster I remember my great uncle. I still see his face now. Clean shaved with a shadow of beard that he can never fully rid himself. He has deep wrinkles from a calm smile that never totally leaves his face. I remember the sincerity in his voice that always struck me.

“Papa” on my wife’s side of the family was the same type of man. Though he died years before my wife and I became a couple not a holiday goes by that I do not hear fond stories about Papa’s role in their lives.

On Thanksgiving day 2014 –at age 27 and my house full of family – after my mother-in-law and aunt-in-law hugged me and thanked me for “taking care of the family”, my nephews asked how to be successful, and my father-in-law asked for advice – I realized I had become a Cornerstone too.

For me, there are more questions than answers about this journey. About the type of man I want to be. How to do what’s right. What is right anyway? And how to lead.

I think conscious effort is a good first step. Here I am.

In the Moment

Orange, green, and brown leaves. A perfect seventy degrees. There’s a beautiful family walking down the mountain trail as my own family walk up it. The trail is steep and there are a lot of roots and large stones so we move to one side to let the family pass. The Dad, head of his family, marching proud down the trail. He leads his wife and three kids down.

His wife has brown-blonde hair. She also looks happy to be on the trail. Their children following closely behind like young ducklings. A proud momma of a son and two daughters.

But something is different about their children. Their heads are down. They aren’t looking at the beautiful leaves, they do not have the same proud look their parents have, and they are missing it. There is a lack of life in their movement. A lack of interest. Missing the golden leaves, the breeze, nature. Missing all of it. They are out of touch – eyes glazed. The youngest’s nose almost touching the screen of a phone.

That night my wife and I return home and begin to make dinner together. We turn on music, chat about the day, watch our daughter play with her toys and scoot across the floor. I pick her up and throw her up and her head almost touches the ceiling. She laughs and I put her down. She craws across and I am impressed with her speed. We are in the moment and enjoy each other’s company.

Thoughts on Maturing Relationships

Holden has written several posts about marriage problems (here and here for example). We have had a number conversations and email exchanges on the topic too. Unfortunately, most of the time I can’t offer much in the way of advice, but I’d like to point out a few things that have served me well during the decade-long relationship with my own wife.

1. The Couple and the Self

My wife and I started our relationship very young. We were immature and as result of that immaturity I do not think I had the ability or experience to distinguish between the two entities that exist in a serious relationship: The Couple and the Self.

My wife and I are both a couple, but still our individual selves. We have our own ambitions, goals, desires, interests, insecurities – but those feature sets simultaneously overlap and bleed over into our couple-self. Sometimes those elements of self and couple are at odds and sometimes they align perfectly.

The key is coming into a relationship with respect and love for the other person as an individual.

When I think of my wife I see a women who dreams of selling her artwork at craft shows, having the courage and self-confidence to make friends, traveling the world, sitting at the dinner table with family, and being the world’s best wife and mother. I see a playful and feisty women with insecurities and dreams – some of those the same as mine – others different.

Sometimes I have to muster the courage , trust, and patience to let her be herself – even if that means sacrificing a little of my own time to do so. She does the same for me in return.

2. Self-Examination and Leadership

I have always tried to be a leader and my philosophy has typically been that leaders do two things:

1. Lead by example, and
2. Lead with integrity.

Leading by example and with integrity requires that one examines their own behavior – not the behavior of their partner. It is an exercise in self control, self discipline, and honesty.

In my own relationship I’ve tried (and often failed) to lead with these qualities. And I’ve learned that my own actions and responses are independent of the actions of anyone else.

If someone screams at me I can respond calmly. If I am insulted I can respond with a level head. When it is someone you love doing these things an appropriate response is even more difficult. Leadership responses take a lot of self control, but are the job of any good leader. If you expect a certain behavior you must first exhibit that behavior yourself.

These lessons are fluid – not just one way. My wife, for example, demonstrates unconditional love. She is caring, devoted, and faithful. She has taught me those traits by example and I have learned a lot from her. She is an emotional leader in our household.

I like to think she’s picked up a few of my better qualities as well.

3. Speak-Easy

I learned a long time ago that I know my wife well enough that I can use words as deadly daggers. Words that can tear into her self-confidence, break her down, and make her fill like nothing.

I used to use those words with more frequency than I’d like to admit, but as I’ve matured and as my love has matured so has my use of words.

Sometimes I try to step outside of myself. When my temper is about to explode I take a moment to self-evaluate and to reassess my actions. I’ve learned (and sometimes failed) to speak-easy.

Over the long haul I have watched my wife’s self confidence return and our arguments fizzle out faster. Try to remember you love this other human being – even when you are at your most upset.

Thoughts on Marriage

A few days ago Holden wrote an honest and raw post about the difficulties of marriage and children.  Equally, truthful and perhaps more revealing were the comments. Both of which inspired me to take a shot at articulating my own relationship situation.

My wife and I have been together for over 11 years (married for four of them). We literally grew up together. We attended the same high school and the same University . We shared the same group of friends.  And for the most part been together every day for the last decade. A relationship like this has its own set of nuances we have to work through.

First, there is no mystery between us. For the most part we know everything about each other. Not just philosophically, but we literally know pretty much everything. She knows what I had for lunch yesterday. That can be both good and bad.

For example, we do not enjoy the veil of wonder between us that I witness some of my friends in new relationships enjoy. There is no self-created amazement, and no pretending that the other person is a God. Then again, we know each other better than any two people on earth can know one another – and we still love (and like) each other.

Second, even though my wife and I grew up together  – two people probably couldn’t be more different and have experienced life more differently. My wife is an artist, she feels deeply and shows emotion, she is caring and empathetic. My wife is silly and enjoys vampire movies. My wife will take two hours to hang a photo and will spend two days in an art museum. I hang all of my photos crooked, I workout 4-5 days a week, I’m impatient, business minded, and quick witted. Fills gaps, I guess.

It is strange sharing your life with someone. Because even though we have agreed to share our life – we are still two separate people. Two people with different ambitions, different motives and goals, and different interests. We are two people that live in the same house, agree to have dinner together every night, but in reality have our own lives. Our own lives that belong uniquely to each of us. And even with all of these differences we somehow work them out within the parameters of our own relationship universe.

At some point in a relationship I think people begin to forget this. That our significant others have a life too. But it’s too important to forget. I don’t know what works and what doesn’t. I have my own fair share of problems and struggles. But the one thing that I keep coming back to, that I keep trying to articulate, is that we have to recognize, respect, and nurture the fact that the person we have committed to having a relationship is his/her own person. My wife is a person. Her own person.

I’m not sure why this small fact resonates with me. I think it reminds me that she has her own things going on – internally and externally. It reminds me to be a little more understanding. It reminds me to be patient and to be more supportive. It reminds me to be more compassionate and a better husband.

Head of the Family

Having a kid has forced me to examine a lot of things in my life. I have to think about what I say, how I say it, and the inadvertent message I am sending to my daughter any time I act. It is an constant exercise of restraint, self control, and leadership. It is something I never gave much thought until she was already here.

Starting my own family has also forced me to reflect on my own childhood. The traditions we had, the good times, and the bad. And after a lot of self reflection I’ve come to realize that I am the launching pad for my family. I am the transitional figure who will likely set a new precedence for future generations to follow.

I don’t mean that in an egotistical kind of way, it’s just that I believe I am the first person in my family to recognize and accept this responsibility. My father suffers from addiction, my mother from depression, both from lack of education. Going generations back there is no figure that holds the family together. There are few traditions and no one I would call the “head of the family”.

I want my wife and daughter to have these things. I even want my parents and in-laws to experience these type of things. I picture the entire family sitting around a big dining room table on special occasions. Love, security, and tradition. There was a shortage of those things in my life and I want my family to have it.

So when I’m angry I take pause. When someone upsets me I stop and think. Instead of reacting I reflect on the big picture. Sure, I could probably say something to hurt this person’s feelings, but instead I’ll take it for the team. I’ll be the glue that holds this family together. I’ll swallow the insults, the ignorance, and instead be a leader. I’ll do all these things because I can and there’s no one else to do it. My reward is the result.

Stolen Memories: I used to call this place home.

I grew up about 30 miles outside Atlanta, GA in a small, but booming suburb that is divided by a quickly developing city center and rural farmland. My house was about 10 miles outside the booming city center and sits on 4 acres of lightly wooded property, including a barn and several work-shop buildings. I called this place home for most of my formative years.

oldhouse - Copy

At age 18 left for college which was only 100 miles, but a lifetime from home. Slowly, trips home faded away until I never came back at all. My tree-house, bedroom, and my childhood slowly becoming a distant memory. Later my parents split up, my Mom moved out, my Dad took a Job in rural Alabama, and the house sat unattended for several years. Then my wife and I found out we are having a baby.

It only takes about an hour to get from our home in Atlanta to the house. I still have the key on my key-ring today. I unlocked the deadbolt like I never left. The windows in the back are boarded, the grass and trees cover the porch railing, and the formerly pristine field is covered in small trees and wheat grass.

The house smells old – a slight must of dampness and mildew from a place that hasn’t been lived in or properly maintained for years. There are boxes stacked from floor to ceiling in every room – evidence of my Father’s past hoard. Part of me can barely believe I used to call this place home, but other things haven’t moved an inch since I left.

I open the door to my old room, but there’s not much left that I can recall. Eight box-spring mattresses are stacked in the corner. I wonder to myself where the hell my Dad acquired such things –and why. These types of thoughts are fleeting though – I’m used to this. I open a few boxes until I find one with all of my old books.

Each book is exactly how I left it. Untouched and even in the same order I vaguely remember packing them almost a decade ago. My father’s hoard is strangely comforting in that way – it is almost like a time capsule of possessions stored in a former home turned storage facility, but still full of archived memories.

Five books and two old yearbooks are worth sharing with my daughter. I touch the wall and feel almost sorry for the old house – almost like an old dog you haven’t paid enough attention to for years. I lock up the house and take my stolen memories back home.

Puerto Ricans and Ass Kickings

When I was 7 years old my family and I moved to a neighborhood on the South side of Atlanta. The first two kids I was introduced to were a big black boy who lived across the street named Courtney and a chubby Puerto Rican named Hector. We respected Courtney because he was a foot taller and 50 lbs heavier than the rest of us. We made fun of Hector because he had a big head and always smelled like barbecue sauce.  

My first fight was with Hector. He kicked my ass in front of the entire neighborhood. I remember refusing to fight while the “big kids” urged him to slam me down a nearby hill. He obliged and I tumbled down my neighbors lawn.  After a brief tumble down the rocky ledge the fight was over. My shirt was stretched and stained. My knees and elbows were battered. When the show was over I went home.

When my Mom saw my stained clothes and beaten body she was furious. Her “baby” had been beaten up by a “bully”.  She embarrassed me further by confronting Hector while I stood by her side staring at the ground. Hector held his chin high while my mother cursed him. “Never lay another hand on my child!”  The verbal abuse from the neighborhood boys stood as a constant reminder of the incident. 

The whole experience was terrible, but I vowed to never lose another fight again. My response was to publicly beat the hell out of Hector whenever the opportunity presented itself.  There were many, many opportunities.

That beating and the subsequent retaliatory ass-kickings I handed out taught me a lot about life and how to be tough. But mostly those childhood poundings remind me of how hard it can be to be a kid. 

The funny thing is Hector was my best friend. I cried when we moved.