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Monthly Archives: December 2012

empathyAt a conference for financial professionals in Miami recently, I attended a keynote speech by Michael J. Fox. I’m pretty sure he has nothing to do with the world of finance, but sometimes I think they choose speakers at these events to help us forget for a minute that our livelihoods are dependent on the U.S. economy. I was so interested in hearing what he had to say that I arrived early and sat in the front. It was inspiring and depressing, sad and hilarious all at the same time. He has an endearing sense of humor and an inspiring message but it was hard to watch knowing that he is struggling with Parkinson’s disease. Despite his life-threatening illness, he spoke about the amazing opportunities he has been given because of his disease and how important it is to be optimistic.

All of his stories were memorable but I keep coming back to one: After a vacation in Paris, he and his family flew on the Air France Concorde back to New York. For those too young to remember, the Concorde was a supersonic plane that could get you from Paris to New York in 3 hours if you were willing to sell a kidney to pay for the ticket. His wife is afraid of flying and was particularly afraid of the futuristic Concorde. Michael promised her that if this trip was too much, they would never take that type of plane again. One Valium and three hours later, the family made it to New York. The next day Michael was in his office watching television and heard that the next flight to leave Paris after his family took off had crashed, killing 113 people. The Concorde never flew again. In telling this story in his book, Always Looking Up: The Adventures of an Incurable Optimist, he finishes by saying, “Sometimes, when you are alone, minutes pass before you even realize you are crying.”

There is a reason why I have been thinking about this story. In 2001, my parents came to visit my husband and me in New York. We took them on a road trip up the coast and had a wonderful time in Cape Cod. On the way home, we dropped my parents off in Boston as their flight back to Los Angeles was leaving from Logan airport the next morning. My husband’s office was on Park Avenue, but the morning that my parents were traveling, he had a special meeting in the World Trade Center. Exactly one week later, he called me at 8:45 in the morning and said, “Turn on the TV.” We watched the twin towers fall together on the phone, completely stunned by the fact that if the attackers had launched their plan one week earlier, my parents would have been on the plane that crashed into the building and my husband would have been on the 34th floor. I was at work surrounded by others who were also sitting around the TV in stunned silence. Sometimes you don’t have to be alone for several minutes to pass before you realize that you are crying.

As a society, we don’t have trouble empathizing when tragedy hits us on a national scale. Our hearts go out to the people whose houses are washed away by a hurricane, whose businesses are destroyed by an oil spill, or whose families are devastated by a madman with a gun. We are a very caring and generous nation and we rally around those who are suffering. I was only one of many in my office who shed tears when we heard that 27 children and teachers that we had never met had been murdered in their classroom in Connecticut. Why is it that so many have trouble taking that empathy down to a small, everyday scale? Why can’t we empathize with people who don’t share our level of education, our financial status, or dare I say it, our political point of view? Seth Godin is an author who has published 14 best-selling books about societal issues such as the post-industrial revolution, marketing and leadership. On his popular site titled Seth’s Blog he recently posted this quote: “When we extend our heart, our soul and our feelings to another, when we imagine what it must be like to be them, we expose ourselves to risk. The risk of feeling bruised, or of losing our ability to see the world from just one crisp and certain point of view.”

Since I am as guilty as anyone, today I am going to try to take an ounce of the empathy that I feel for the families burying their children in Newtown, and exercise it on something trivial as well, like people who can’t quit smoking or listening to country music. Imagine what our world would be like if we were all willing to empathize, even just a little bit, with people whose habits, preferences and opinions annoy us.

spoiling kidsListening to the radio on my way to work, I heard an interview with a singer who was enjoying his first big hit. The DJ asked what big purchases he had made since becoming rich and famous. I was expecting him to say a house or a car, but he proudly announced that he could finally afford to buy the Lego Millennium Falcon, a space ship from Star Wars. He had wanted it his whole life and that was the first thing he did with his new found wealth. “Huh,” I thought to myself,” I just bought that for my nephew.” For a brief moment I felt a twinge of guilt for being that family member who showers the kids with material possessions and then leaves the parents to deal with the consequences. How ridiculous that a rock star was excited about earning his prize and I just dropped it into the lap of a spoiled eight-year-old. And then I got over it, took my nephew to Disneyland and bought him whatever he wanted.

Giving presents to my nieces and nephews makes me happy. I will do just about anything for those moments of dancing around in excitement, hugs, and loud proclamations that I’m the best aunt ever. Everybody who loves a child wants those moments. However, they also need to be able to find the boundaries. As an aunt, do I understand how my gift giving enthusiasm is impacting the children? I thought about it and the answer is no. No, I do not. I have no experience in keeping children grounded and grateful while everyone around is giving them everything they ask for. I’m also willing to admit that I’m not likely to learn. I’m not going to stop buying Lego or going through the American Girl doll catalog with my niece to figure out what she wants next. I also do not want to cause problems, and turn those sweet little “you’re the best aunt” faces into spoiled “this is not what I wanted” scowls. I truly believe that giving children too much at once is detrimental, but I want someone else to worry about it and let me be the popular aunt.

Since I can’t trust my own discernment when it comes to overdoing it on the presents, I have made a conscious effort to rely on my brother and his wife to guide me. I have started asking them if it is OK if I buy the creepy mummy Indiana Jones set, or the movie with the scary bear.  I am trying to ask if I can take them bowling or out to dinner when the kids are not within ear shot so that they have a chance to say no without being the bad guy. I say I’m trying because I will admit that I asked my brother about the holy grail of Lego sets as it was sitting on my bed waiting to be wrapped. Self-control is not my strong suit, but at least I am trying. Parents don’t want to say no or be forced to be the gatekeeper all the time, but they know better than anyone when their kids need the family to dial down the spoiling.

I can’t imagine how hard it is to protect a child from the commercialism and greed that is so ingrained in our world, but I think it is a very important role in parenting.  I am aware that I regularly flop over the fence, alternating between trying not to be a part of the problem and being the chief offender. The least I can do is ensure open communication with the parents of the children I am influencing. Even if I ignore them and clean out Toys-R-Us anyway, at least they can mentally prepare themselves to make room for another spaceship.