The child is 2 years old. Sitting and crying on the floor. They have been crying for a little while now.
I sit too. Holding space as they cry. I am not talking to them. I am not touching them or even trying to hold them. Only sitting close. Meanwhile, the room around us is slightly chaotic. Other children are playing and squealing and running. Some shove toys into my face. Some jump in my lap. I share my attention with them but always try to stay mindful of the one next to me that is still whimpering and crying.
“Why are they crying?” another child asks.
“I don’t know.” I say.
The inquisitor stares at me a moment, as if they are confused by my answer. Then looks at the one that is crying. Then looks back at me. Maybe figuring something out – then boom, they are right back to playing.
Why does it matter why we cry? Must everything be qualified? Does sadness have a hierarchy? Does that determine how we respond to it?
It is interesting to me that even very young children want to know why someone is crying. I think it has to do with their own survival brains – as in, if that person is crying because they touched a hot plate, I need to know so I don’t touch it too. For the very young ones it seems to be more about self-preservation, and less about concern for others. They quite naturally view emotion as a source of information. I find that there is something very pure about that.
Me? Yes, I am a fixer. A recovering fixer (I hope). Generally, if someone I loved were in distress or hurting, I’d want to fix it for them. In fact, it has gotten me in trouble on more than one occasion because often my desire to fix presents as judgmental or critical. Or superior. Or condescending. To date I’ll admit, I have not been successful at “fixing” any of the people I love. When I was a kid I thought I could fix my brother. When I was older I tried to fix my dad. I failed both times.
The child by my side is crying less now. And, even in the wildness of the room, another child has decided to come and sit with us. This child also does not talk, but just plops down on the other side of me, my right side, and fumbles quietly with a small wooden block.
I turn to my left, to the one that is sad and say “Would you like me to pick you up?” They shake their head and through more tears say “Mommy. I want Mommy.” I nod. “I know,” I say, “you want your mommy.” And they cry more. And we continue to sit. The one on my left is sad and missing someone they love. The one on my right is content, unbothered by the crying, as if to remind me that sadness is a part of life and we all get to be sad. Meanwhile I, in the middle, am feeling very lost somewhere in between.
I cannot figure out how to untangle my compassion and empathy from the terrible snare of my fixer mindset. What is compassion without action? How can I say that I have empathy for someone’s plight and then not try to help them?
What is help anyway? Isn’t it always filtered through the individualized lens and experiences of the helper? How then can the helper know for sure that it’s really help? In this case, the helper is me. The help I might often try to give to others is not always helpful. My advice-giving, suggestion-making, opinion-offering is ineffective at best and hurtful at worst. Mostly because “fixing” presumes brokenness. And hard feelings, hard moments, difficulties don’t make us broken — they make us human. I am still learning this. And my best teachers in this learning process are children.
Have you ever tried to help a child that misses their parent? Do you assure them that the parent will “be back to get them later.” Do you try to convince them that they don’t need to be sad because “we’re going to have so much fun today!” Do you attempt to bolster them by asserting “you’ll be ok.” Yeah, me to. I did all that. I’ve tried it all. Even, (dare I truly admit it?) I have used food as a distraction. Sometimes it works. Food often works. If, that is, my goal is to get them to just stop being sad.
But what if I just sat there and let them be sad? What if I wasn’t afraid of their sadness, but simply witnessed it with them? What if I sat confidently like the child on my right, simply being with them – somehow knowing that sadness is ok. I’d be a better friend if I spent more time just sitting. Just seeing. Just hearing. And less time fixing. I’d be a better human maybe, if I sat with the hard feelings more, instead of trying to wish them away. Or “work them out.” Or solve them.
The child on my right looks up at me and smiles. I smile back. They drop the little block into my lap, laughing and running off presumably to get more. Piling toys into my lap is always great fun. The child on my left sniffles and reaches a little hand down picking up the block. They look up at me.