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Empathy

Cricket is not an empathy expert. She tends to see the world through a fog of her own needs, interpreting others’ characters by how quickly and thoroughly they respond to her demands. I kept trying to help her learn to see the rest of us more clearly. When she bit me with her sharp puppy teeth I would yell “ouch!” like the teacher told us to do, but Cricket would go on biting me. When I was upset, Cricket would hop right over to me, not to offer comfort, but to steal my tear-and-snot-filled tissues.

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“You don’t need this, right?”

It wasn’t until we adopted Butterfly, an eight-year-old puppy-mill-mama from the shelter, that Cricket started to get an inkling of what empathy might be. Butterfly was about Cricket’s size, and her species, and she peed outside (eventually) and barked, and ate kibble and chicken treats, but at first, Cricket saw all of these behaviors as a usurping of her role as “Only Dog” and resented her new sister. Butterfly persisted, though, offering up her butt for sniffing, listening to Cricket’s rants with wide-eyed wonder, peeing only where Cricket peed, deferring to her sister on every big and small issue of dogdom, until, eventually, Cricket had to admit that there was something to this sisterhood business. Because Butterfly is all empathy. She listens to Cricket’s complaints and either offers comfort, or takes up the barking along with her. When Cricket seems grumpy or sad, Butterfly sits nearby to offer solidarity and a fluffy butt to lean on.

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Butterfly’s butt seems to be very comforting.

I’m not saying that four years with Butterfly have made Cricket into the queen of empathy, in fact, she still has very little interest in what other people, or dogs, feel or think, especially if it’s different from her own view of things. But she has come to respect the power of empathy when it is directed at her. She accepts her sister’s solidarity and comfort, and will even allow a small rebuke of her own behavior, as long as it’s cushioned with endless adoration.

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Only Butterfly could get away with telling Cricket to tone down the barking.

Butterfly sends warmth my way too, and notices when I am struggling, especially physically, but whereas she can clearly relate to Cricket’s issues, as a fellow dog, she sees my problems as too human, and therefore hard to understand. I feel that way too, a lot of the time. I don’t know how to have empathy for myself. I tend to judge whether I deserve empathy based on whether I’ve received empathy from other people. So if I happen to be surrounded by people who can’t relate to me, or can’t see things from my perspective, or if everyone who cares about me is busy, or in a bad mood, I’m sunk.

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“I love you, Mommy, but I don’t understand.”

My real world has been short on empathy lately, but as a result, I’ve been taking more and more comfort in the virtual empathy of my fellow bloggers. Even when I feel overwhelmed with school work, or the horrible, horrible news, I make time to write an essay for the blog, just because, selfishly, I want to feel the warmth and kindness that radiates from all of you in return.

Cricket is very lucky to have a Butterfly at her side, always ready to offer sweetness and comfort, and I think everyone deserves to have a Butterfly of their own, to keep them company through the rough spots. You, dear readers, are my Butterfly.

Thank you.

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