Matt Knutson: The world could use a little more empathy

Published 10:00 pm Thursday, December 7, 2017

Things I tell My Wife, By Matt Knutson

“She thinks she is putting lotion on my face,” I told my wife as our eldest daughter rubbed her hands across my cheek. Gracelyn had discovered her mother’s lotion, and though she was able to open the lid, she hadn’t quite mastered squeezing out the contents. Perhaps recalling the previous night when Sera applied essential oils to Gracelyn in order to improve her sleep while battling a cold, Gracelyn was determined to do the same for her sick father.

I am beginning to believe illness is the life of a household with young children. We’ve been battling something, or maybe multiple viruses, since before Thanksgiving. Yes, it all started soon after Maeva was born. Every time we turn a corner, the next bug arrives. I don’t know what is going on at day care, but I’m beginning to think some sinister Secret Santa game is at play where everyone becomes ill for the rest of the year.

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Gracelyn’s natural desire to comfort shouldn’t come as a surprise to me at this point. For her young age, she’s surprisingly filled with compassion for those she cares most about. We first witnessed this as we prepared her for the arrival of her sister. One tactic we utilized was exposing Gracelyn to photographs of babies, particularly her own baby book. I’ll never forget when she noticed a particular photo featuring Sera holding her for the first time. My wife’s eyes were filled with tears of joy as her firstborn rested in her arms. As Gracelyn gazed at this photograph, her eyes slowly welled up with tears. As if in slow motion, her mouth gaped open and suddenly a wail began from deep within her. She had interpreted this photo as one of deep sadness and did not appreciate seeing her mama in such a state. Now as we flip through her baby book, I attempt to skip this page to avoid retriggering her bout of emotions. Nevertheless, she persisted tonight and forced us to show her the page. Her reaction remained the same.

Our eldest displayed similar behavior upon visiting the hospital to meet her newborn sister. As Maeva cried, Gracelyn increasingly grew worried and wanted it to stop. When an unfamiliar nurse came in, she wanted him to have nothing to do with her new sister until she deemed him worthy. Even tonight, while watching an animated film, a horse looked as though it might be in danger, and you could sense my daughter’s fear as she tightened her muscles and unconsciously leaned in. My wife appropriately described our daughter as being filled with empathy.

Empathy, the ability to understand and share feelings of another, is a powerful virtue. In a world where we are categorically defined by our differences, we could all use a little more empathy for whoever the “other” may be in our daily encounters. Doing this isn’t always easy, but I believe it is essential to becoming a better person. A good practice might be to purposefully remove yourself from your standard routine and go someplace normally untraveled in your community. By changing your scenery, you may be able to better understand the life of someone else in your community.

The phrase, “put yourself in someone else’s shoes” comes to mind when I think about empathy. That might mean you find yourself uncomfortable in shoes that are too small, or perhaps shoes that are a bit worn down, but even the attempt to comprehend what someone else is going through can prove worthwhile. That certainly rang true as Gracelyn put invisible lotion on my face. With the countdown to Christmas upon us, perhaps we could all be blessed with more empathy. The compassion that comes with it would certainly put the rest of us in the holiday mood.

Matt Knutson is a communications specialist in Rochester.