I think the word empathy has many possible opposites.
Among them: Certainty.
- Certainty that you know what’s best for someone when you do not live in their shoes.
- Certainty that pities or disdains someone with a different point of view.
- Certainty that responds to someone else’s suffering with a platitude that does nothing to patch the pain.
The empathetic exercise of trying on someone else’s experience, attempting to feel from the same place they feel, is a creative act (one we need more of in this world). And if I’m so certain, so cemented into my own position, I’m less able to do it.
I feel certain about this right now. Uncertain how to resolve that. Hitting publish.
I’m making some needle-felted figurines for a friend—little people made of wool. At some point in the process of every single figure, I look down and think, “Uh-oh.” The shape has become lumpy, disproportionate, basically unfixable. I should start over.
But inevitably, if I felt the layers tighter, if I add wool in strategic places and keep my needle going up and down, the misshapen mess shifts into something that just might work and then into something that actually does work and then into something I can share.
Always before the breakthrough: that moment when I almost abandon the project because it’s no good.
In the first session of local writing workshop I’m teaching, I asked everyone to share their name and 3 details about their childhood bedroom.
Someone at the beginning prefaced her details by saying her room was just ordinary. But then we went around the circle and discovered nobody’s room was the same.
One person was afraid of a pattern in the wallpaper. Another grew up in a farmhouse that sometimes had snowdrifts in the hall. (Snowdrifts! In the hall!)
Everyone present had slept in a bedroom as a child. But not one person had an ordinary room. Even if the bunk beds or closet monsters sounded familiar, each person’s details came with singular stories that were uniquely theirs.
In the thick of routine, I easily mistake my day-to-day as humdrum, ordinary—the details around me turning to white noise. But after a peek into rooms that weren’t mine, I’ve been noticing my ordinary more carefully, which adds a dose of unordinary magic to every day.
My brother-in-law is in experimental cancer treatment. We’re all hoping, hoping, hoping.
In the meantime, he eats food and takes his kids to the park and lives his life and posts it on Instagram. His feed shows his son on a swing, his baby climbing a stair.
In one 6-second video, his four-year-old daughter runs down the sidewalk.
She’s adorable, sure. But it’s his caption that stops me:
The cute little jingle I heard everywhere as she ran with her jewelry.
I watch the video again. I hadn’t even noticed the jingle.
Because I know his situation, I am probably projecting, but each picture, each little clip in that feed almost seems to be taking in every detail of the world and repeating a mantra: I love this, I love this, I love this.
I want to hear tiny jingles, to love the world that much today, cancer or not.
The last several weeks have been some of my busiest at work in a long while. So busy that one morning, I rolled over in bed and asked my husband if he’d received the text I sent for the website sliders—before I realized that I was still half-dreaming. Working in my sleep.
When every minute feels packed with the pressure of things left undone, I tend to think and think—mentally drafting the next email while driving in the car, planning the next training meeting while cutting tomatoes.
Mid-week, I received the advice to practice thoughtless rest.
I couldn’t imagine how to do that. I can’t stop thinking.
The answer: Imagine you’re an unborn baby. You do not yet have words or images hidden in your synapses. It is dark, but you haven’t yet experienced light to even know the difference. You float, with nothing to consider beyond the borders of your own body.
Lie down. Close your eyes. Practice feeling that way for a few minutes.
I tried it one night. Best sleep I’ve had in weeks. I got up and the work felt easier.
Many years ago, on an afternoon when I felt overwhelmed and tired and lonely and broke, my aunt called.
We lived far from each other and hadn’t talked in months.
Without asking how I was or what news my life held, she started speaking. Her sentences described the feeling of being burdened, as if she’d been watching me slogging. And then she said the specific encouragement that my situation asked for. (She does this sometimes—says exactly the right words in a way that feels miraculous and almost eerie.)
I wish I could remember most of the specifics she said that day, but I don’t. Not because they weren’t important, but because the last thing she said caught my attention most.
That last thing has become something I carry around with me, calling on it like a little mantra if I ever start stressing that I have too much to do:
You don’t need to DO anything today. You just need to love.
I am a doer. I map out my to-do list and then I do it, either until the list is checked off or I’m exhausted. If I put too much focus on that list, I behave in ways that make me not like myself very much. But if mentally revisit that years-ago phone call when I’m swamped, my to-do’s chill out a little bit.
Sure the advice sounds cheesy (just love?), but for me that day, it also sounded true.
I usually view creative plateaus as obstacles, as frustrating stops to avoid.
But maybe plateaus are lookout points.