But... You've Never Even Slept Outside

I have always been plagued with vivid dreams, often bizarre, frequently terrifying (and often both). My son, unfortunately, has followed suit, the poor guy experiencing a few night terrors in the last few years. This whole thing must be super contagious, because Ellie, our seven-month-old golden retriever, has daily, intense, multiple, puppy dreams, complete with excessive whimpering and whining. 

"What are you even dreaming about? How could you possibly be scared or upset? You've never known fear in your life, dog."

"You are living the DREAM as the dog of a comfortable household. If I believe in reincarnation I'd want to come back as you. You've never even had to sleep outside."

"What's so scary? Did someone replace your dog treats with generic ones? Did we run out of carrots?"

"Oh no, did someone tell Ellie that she's not allowed on furniture again?"

Clearly, I've struggled to empathize with my puppy. 

Sure, it's not that big of a deal, she's, you know, a dog  and doesn't understand she's being blatantly mocked. But this made me stop and think about how often we do this to actual people. We assume celebrities have nothing to be depressed about because they're so wealthy, how a coworker shouldn't be overwhelmed because their life appears easy, or that a family member has no right no be cranky because they don't seem to have ever faced real adversity. You know how it goes, whether big or small, we've all been guilty of downplaying someone else's emotions because they don't match the image we've created for this person (or, umm, dog) in our own heads.

I've really, really tried to work on this in my own life the last few years, just as so much has come to the forefront in terms of how our society functions, whether it's mental health, race, socioeconomic woes, or the innerworkings of family. The fact of the matter is, unless you are that person, you can't fully grasp what someone is going through and can't necessarily judge whether their anxiety, exhaustion, depression, anger, or whatever is actually valid. 

I have a friend who had always done this to me, unapologetically so. It used to bother me greatly, but after a very lengthy friendship I've just accepted this trait and don't expect this person to be a high-quality listener. Complaining about something with the house? Whelp, I'm lucky to be a home owner. Tired because of my kid? Whelp, luckily I have one. Concerned about financial issues? Whelp, there are people in other countries who live on a fraction of what we do. Every single time these responses left me feeling defensive and like my concerns weren't valid, when in fact they really were, at least at that moment. I know people do it quietly, too, assuming my life is a certain way because of the happy pictures I post or the fairly upbeat attitude I try to have. Well, guess what? Life has thrown some serious curve balls at me the last few years and I could have used some empathy from people who withheld it because they believed I couldn't possibly deserve it. Luckily, I am fortunate to have an inner-circle of incredible people, so I'm just fine. Another silver lining is knowing who you can count on and who you cannot.

[Wow. That got super vague real fast.]

Anyway, here's where it gets tricky, though, because we do have to check our privilege, as applicable, and we do need to remember to at least be capable of peering through the lens of gratitude on occasion. No one likes a complainer, and no one really wants to hear how someone's sad because one of their six fancy cars are broken (hyperbolic, but you know what I mean). Just because you have more than others, doesn't mean you don't get to feel your feelings (and this isn't just limited to money; it can mean stability in relationships, one's self, socially, etc...). Someone is always going to have it worse, and someone will always have it better. 

I'm reading Fredrick Backman's Anxious People right now and within the first fifty pages the reader is being pushed in the direction of empathy, as a presumed criminal's past is being explained. Instead of feeling spite for this man, the reader is left heartbroken for his plight. That's the beauty of being an avid reader- we're forced to look at characters in so many perspectives that we realize human beings in real life work that way too. Everyone has a story and a reason for how they act like they do. It's a question of whether we choose to pause and consider multiple angles, something we can often times be in too much of a hurry to do. Everyone has a backstory. 

Again with the trickiness, though. Just because you are struggling, doesn't mean you get to treat others poorly. Say my dog started biting people when she woke up from her bad dream because she thought we were truly responsible for throwing her beloved chew toys in the trash (or whatever is happening during those doggy REM cycles of hers)- that would be unacceptable, as biting is not tolerated in my house (by people or animals). Or maybe the depressed celebrity verbally abuses her staff- not okay. We have to be held accountable for our actions when we're feeling what we feel; it's part of being a good human. But as long as we aren't dragging others down with us, it's okay to not be okay sometimes, and we need to be able to rely on those around us to be forgiving of us for acting in a way that might not fit into the schema they've created. 

On a lot of levels I think I'm incredibly empathetic, but there are people I've struggled with seeing in this light, whether because of how they've treated me, others, or because of their excess need for empathy. Boundaries are so important, though, and there is a thing as too much empathy, right? I consider this on so many levels, whether it's with students, family, friends, or even the national level. When I read Hillbilly Elegy a few years ago I remember gaining an entire new insight into why Trump voters chose to elect him. I didn't agree with them at all, but I empathized with their feelings that democrats had failed to help them break free of generational poverty and plight. It's hard right now to try to summon up empathy for people who have been so blatantly misogynistic, racist, classist, or offensive, but if we are ever going to grow as humans don't we have to set a good example and try? It's hard. 

But, back to the dog (the digression has been real, but also fairly intentional). I still don't understand what her problem is, but I know that she's experiencing one, so, yes, I've become that person who stops what she's doing and rushes to her side with extra love. 


  1. She's such a cutie! I don't know what's going on in my dog's dreams either, but I try to comfort her when she seems upset.

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