Monday, May 9, 2011

It's the Empathy, Stupid

About five years ago, Chris Rock had a standup routine where he argued (convincingly) that if you haven't fantasized about killing your spouse, then you're not in love. He should have done the bit about kids instead, and I don't just say that because yesterday was Mother's Day.

Oh, don't shoot me that shocked expression. I would further riff on Rock by stating that if I find myself talking to a mother or father who acts positively MORTIFIED that I would would DARE say something like that about my OWN child, and that they have simply NEVER felt that way, nor WOULD they ... I make a mental note that I cannot be friends with this person.

Our joys and challenges with our little boy are well-documented (mostly by me). But after having spent an intense weekend with this certifiably intense child (we sponsored a belated birthday sleepover, two other boys), I have a slightly new perspective on the matter.


Childhood is a war zone, and I don't know how we survive it. James' buddies (The Alienteers) are good kids ... really good kids. But every five seconds is a new competition, especially with a party of three. The political grounds constantly shift to produce a roving two-against-one advantage. Each boy has to constantly fight for his turf, even if that's simply "calling middle" in the back seat of the Honda. It's exhausting. And sometimes it seems the only way to unify a group of boys is to do one of two things: Play the enemy, or play the clown. I find myself doing both.

When James was 5, a friend of my parents once patiently listened to me vent about the challenges of raising this boy. When I finally gave her an opening to respond, subconsciously hoping that she would say some version of "poor you," she said, "I think it's really tough to be James." Ouch.

Those words instantly rewired my brain. And this weekend, the insight finally hit home. This is a kid who senses everything around him to a level I probably can't imagine. I know that on paper, but this weekend was different. You know that sensation in your mouth after you've had an Altoid, when everything you eat or drink feels like it's hitting a million raw nerves? This is how I imagine James' whole body feels ... all the time. (Hey, it's not a great analogy, but it works.)

I'm used to his combativeness, his teenager arrogance and impatience at home. But until now, I've never really imagined what's it like to be James in school, except intellectually. Now I've seen more clearly his insecurities with friends: wanting to be liked, wanting to be as funny as the other guy, wanting to fit in, not wanting to feel like he's the odd man out. This is normal stuff, but when it's your son ... I don't know, there's just a trace of heartbreak in it. Maybe it's because you feel simultaneously that you've been there, and you're over it, and you want to tell him (and you do, later in the hammock) that there are ways to deal with this stuff, that he shouldn't be so sensitive, and it's all going to be okay. But at the same time, a part of you realizes that this struggle never ends.

Chris Rock had it right. But even his bit wasn't an original insight; it was his own riff on a phrase that I still find to be one of the only incontrovertible truths out there: The opposite of love isn't hate; it's indifference.

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