I was in a Zoom ‘cafe’ with several fellow leadership folks. We were gathered to hold space for each other. We each felt like we had been the ones holding space for so many people, holding space for programs, projects, teams. We are all community leaders, educators, health care professionals. And here we were: at this moment, the ones looking to be held.
Stories were shared. Personal ones. Someone’s parent had just passed away and the family could not gather to hug each other, could not have a proper funeral to grieve. Someone’s elderly father is in a nursing home but not able to talk on the phone. They’ve decided to not visit him- to not risk it. The alternative is that they are left with the thought that he is sitting there not knowing what has happened to them, he is left wondering why they aren’t coming to visit. They are left with a sad knowing that he is probably feeling abandoned.
These are hard times.
The cafe conversation turned to the idea of ‘the limits of our empathy.’ Everyone there knew about empathy and compassion. We all value it and try to practice it. Yet, how far and wide can our empathy go? When we find ourselves extending self-compassion, grace, and empathy at every turn, every moment, how long can that last? Is there a limit? And if so, what happens when we reach it?
We were joined by our teacher, Ron Heifetz, who is a master leadership scholar, among other things. ‘Perhaps, getting used to heartbreak is the only way’, he said. ‘We have to expand our hearts as big as we can to all who need it. And then we have to allow it to break when it reaches its max.’
We must allow our hearts to break. And then we can then find ways to let it come back together and fill it up, piece by piece.
So, here’s a story.
My son is nine. He’s in third grade and currently doing classes on Zoom. I have to say-his school is killing it. His teacher is incredible. And it was her birthday last week. So the kids all made posters and the plan was to share them on the screen when the class started their day on camera. Now let me share that I have four kids. A 3rd grader, 6th, 9th, and 11th. They have varied start times for their Zoom day. They have varied asynchronous days ‘off’ of Zoom (although my 6th grader still has to log on during the asynchronous day). My household has many schedules to manage.
I swore the 3rd-grade classroom started at 9 am. As it turns out, no. I was looking at the 1st and 2nd-grade schedule. So when we logged on early (at least I thought it was early) at 8:45, to find the whole class already in the classroom, I realized I made an error. We missed the Zoom birthday celebration. As this truth sunk in, I could see how sad he was. He held his poster in his lap, wondering if the class was going to hold them up. But the class was already in full swing with language arts. No poster. Not right now. I could see him trying to figure out what to do with the morning’s excitement he was holding on to. The excitement of sharing his poster with his teacher, whom he loves. I saw him fighting back the tears until he couldn’t anymore. He turned off his video (because 9-year olds are Zoom masters now), and he buried himself under his covers.
I could feel my own tears coming.
I tried to rub his back through the covers. I told him I was sorry I messed up on the time. I told him I understood why he was sad. As he lay buried under the covers, I sat by his side devastated.
No matter how hard I try. No matter how much I preplan for the schedules of everyone in the house, including my own, failure seems imminent. I just can’t get it right. My mistakes are everywhere.
Getting used to heartbreak is the only way.
I don’t think there is anything worse than knowing your mistake hurt your kids. It breaks your heart. It broke mine. I could see his heart was damaged too. It was my fault. I’m not sure of the origin of my tears. Perhaps the tears were from fatigue: for how hard I was working. I tried to get everyone up, give them ice water to wake up their brain. Perhaps the tears were from how hard I was trying to set everyone up for success: I got up early, tried to make sure computers had power cords, that headphones were connected. Perhaps the tears were for the laundry that was piling up, for my knee that was aching from going up and down the stairs a million times a day, checking on everyone. Perhaps my tears were my longing to go on a trail and hike. Or maybe they were just for the little boy who I knew was so sad.
Here’s the lucky part of this story: I get to share that it had a happy ending. After sending an email to the teacher and allowing my son to keep his video cam off (who wants to show a tear-strained face to your class), I had work of my own that I began with a full and fragile heart. I eventually learned he didn’t miss the celebration (or at least they celebrated again). The class did a happy birthday session when they came back from lunch. Signs waving. 9-year-olds singing in virtual unison, no doubt in a variety of musical keys.
I missed it. Me and my expanded heart had my own Zoom meeting in another area of the house. But I heard it was great. I heard my son held up his poster and smiled as he joined his class singing happy birthday.
We expand our hearts as big as we can to those who need it.
I feel lucky with that happy ending. Not all my endings are happy right now. Right now, we are pushing our empathy limits to their max. For our kids. For those we love and can’t hug. For our friends who we know are struggling. For those we don’t know but who are suffering. We expand our hearts so much and so often that it has no choice but to break.
And right now, perhaps getting used to heartbreak is the only way.
So we continue to expand our hearts. Offering empathy to those around us. We stay in it. Stay connected to the hard, to the pain. We stay in it and continue to care because not caring is not who we want to be. Detaching is a defense mechanism that takes us away from who we are and who we want to be in this world. We are people who don’t lose faith in each other. We don’t lose faith in ourselves. We are people who help each other get back together when parts of our heart break. We help each other when we reach the limits to our empathy. We help each other when we find the edges of our capacity to exist in this unfamiliar life. We stay inspired by those around us. In a song. In a poem. In a Zoom happy hour. In the memes that are making us laugh. In the strength of the human spirit. In our strength. In the hope of one day soon hugging those we love. In the hope of having a meal in a restaurant surrounded by friends. In the hope of hiking on a dirt trail and smiling at the person walking past you.
I was talking with a wise woman I admire, whom I consider a friend. I shared with her how I was having a hard time finding my ground, feeling vulnerable and incompetent. She said, “I think this all will eventually make more sense and we will be able to create the proper space” to find our ground and do our work. In the meantime. She said, “maybe right now we can just have empathy with ourselves.”
Yes to that. Yes to empathy over and over again.
Until our heart reaches its max and it breaks. And with trust in humanity and with trust in ourselves, we let our hearts come back together.