Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Empathy: we can't afford to waste it!

When I was growing up, it was very common to see public service announcements on TV.  One PSA that I remember from my youth was one from the Department of Energy.  The ads had a very recognizable musical cue followed by a small chorus of singers who sang "Energy: we can't afford to waste it!"  Their line would be followed by a very late 70s early 80s electronic musical flourish.  I wish I could find a video of one of those ads.  They used to run all the time.  As it is, I've only managed to find a picture of the record that used to be played for the radio PSAs.

I'm reminded of that campaign this morning.  The slogan was catchy, as was the dated musical interlude that came with it.  It's sad that we no longer see PSAs the way we used to back in the day.  A lot of people could use a helpful reminder of what's important.  Empathy is important.  We can't afford to waste it.


The Giving Tree read by Shel Silverstein.

Last night, Bill and I were talking more about how he and his younger daughter have reconnected.  In the course of our discussion, the topic of empathy came up.  Bill was telling me about how his ex wife used to compare their relationship to the one described in Shel Silverstein's book, The Giving Tree.  Bill hates that book, even though it illustrates a very effective lesson on empathy.  Bill recognizes the value in Silverstein's story, but his ex wife had an annoying habit of using children's books to make points about her perceptions of Bill's "shortcomings".  

You can watch the video above to get the whole story.  Alternatively, here's a short synopsis.  The Giving Tree is the story of a boy and a beautiful tree.  They once had a loving and mutually beneficial relationship.  The boy would play on the tree and lavish attention on it.  The tree would provide shade, branches for him to swing on, and apples to eat.  Sadly, as the boy grew older, he began to neglect the tree.  His interests had changed.  His needs had expanded.  The tree could no longer give the boy all he wanted.  But she could provide the materials for him to give him what he needed.  She would suggest ways he could use her and he would thoughtlessly take her up on her offers to give herself to him.  

The boy used the tree over and over again.  The tree was happy to have him use her to make his life better, even though his endless needs literally took away pieces of her.  She was selfless, empathetic, nurturing, and loving.  He was thoughtless, neglectful, exploitative, and cruel.  Finally, the day came when they were both old, and there wasn't much left of either of them.  In one last act of selfishness, the boy sat on the tree's stump and rested.

My husband's ex wife claimed that she was like the tree and Bill was like the selfish boy who used the tree over and over again for his own self-interests.  She claimed she was "happy" to let him "use" her.  In my opinion, Ex's decision to use The Giving Tree as an object lesson is a classic example of projection.  She is one of the least empathetic people I've ever known, and her penchant for using children's literature to make her points is one of many grating features of her narcissistic personality.

In fifteen years of marriage, I've heard many stories about how Bill's ex loved using children's books for "object lessons", particularly books by Dr. Seuss or Shel Silverstein.  She repeatedly preyed on other people's empathy and twisted things so she'd somehow look both wounded and virtuous.  She had an uncanny knack for knowing exactly what "lessons" she thought her victims needed to learn and would most readily receive, but lacked the talent to "teach" them with original materials.  Instead, she relied on venerable children's authors to deliver her toxic messages, ruining their works for her victims in the process.  She would also choose the least appropriate times to employ her methods, like during major religious holidays, on birthdays, or when the whole family was gathered.

Right before Bill went to war, he wanted to call his daughters and ex stepson and tell them he loved them.  Instead of cooperating with Bill and arranging a phone call, Ex sent him a children's book about forgiveness that he used to read to the kids when they were small.  He never got to say goodbye to them.  Instead, he got another shitty "object lesson" from his ex wife about "forgiveness" in the form of yet another children's book.

Every day for several weeks, I would see that book lying on the floor in a spare room we had.  Every time I passed it lying there, I wanted to burn it or at least throw it away.  I refrained from doing so, because it wasn't my property.  The sight of it made my blood boil.  Finally, I asked Bill to do something with that children's book so I wouldn't have to look at it anymore.  He finally sent it back to his former wife with a note that read "You need this more than I do."  Then Bill went off to Iraq for six months without saying goodbye to his kids.


I noticed this canister yesterday while I was pouring myself a beer...

All of this build up leads me to an explanation of the above picture.  That is an unopened canister of chocolate protein powder.  It's been sitting on that shelf for about two years.  I had noticed it before, but figured Bill had bought it for himself.  When he was still in the Army, Bill often bought supplements to help him maintain his physical fitness.  He had to take physical training tests every six months and, as he got older, the tests were harder to pass.  I thought maybe he was going to use the powder to get in better shape.

Last night, I finally asked him about the canister on the shelf.  It had been there so long that I actually wondered if it had been left by the previous tenants.

Bill said, "I bought that for you when you had oral surgery a couple of years ago.  I was concerned about your nutrition.  I thought maybe you'd have trouble eating solid foods and wanted to make sure you'd be able to get some protein.  I've had a lot of dental work myself and I know how it is."

My mouth dropped open.  I have always known Bill to be empathetic and kind.  He has always been thoughtful and solicitous, sometimes to a fault.  But for some reason, it never occurred to me that he'd think enough of me to buy protein powder.

I am really grateful to be married to such a genuinely empathetic person.  I never asked him to buy me protein powder.  He thought of that himself.  He had anticipated my needs.  I gave him a hug and told him just how much I appreciated that he cared enough to buy me protein powder so I'd be okay after my oral surgery (which turned out to be no big deal).  In my mind, it was extraordinary.

A lot of people have the idea that all men are thoughtless jerks who don't consider others.  I somehow got lucky enough to marry a man who is incredibly empathetic and thoughtful.  Every time I think of what Bill's ex wife so thoughtlessly threw away, I experience a weird combination of rage and gratitude.  I will always be grateful to her for being dumb enough to dump him, but it also angers me that she abused him for so many years.

Bill's ex wife repeatedly took advantage of his kindness and rarely appreciated thoughtful things he did for her.  As a matter of fact, when he would do thoughtful things for her, she usually regarded him as a chump.  The kind deeds would inspire contempt rather than gratitude.  It was like she thought he was a sucker for being considerate.

After awhile, Bill stopped doing nice things for Ex and withdrew from her.  That behavior also inspired contempt and complaints from Ex.  She used Bill's new withdrawn behavior as "proof" that, deep down, he was really an asshole.  She predicted one day he would leave her.  No matter how many times he tried to reassure her, she wouldn't believe him.  She'd escalate her bad behavior and disrespect to the point at which he could no longer ignore it.  Finally, the day she told him she wanted a divorce (Easter Sunday while at the in-laws' house), he agreed.  Her predictions that they would split had finally come to pass.  And then, after he forced her to follow through on her divorce threats, she made him an enemy not even worthy of saying goodbye to his daughters when he went off to war in Iraq.

I mainly write about this stuff, not just so I can process it, but also for other people who are in this situation.  Plenty of people live with others who lack empathy.  I write these stories for them, so they know that they aren't alone and they aren't crazy.  But I also write them, maybe because I know that there have been a lot of false stories spread to people who matter to Bill.  I know his daughters and his parents heard a lot of lies about the kind of person he is.  I have no doubt that the ex wife used The Giving Tree and other children's stories to make her point to people who aren't wise enough to see the truth.  Maybe this story is to try to undo some of the damage wrought by her constant lies and truth stretching.

Let this tale serve as a PSA, just like the one from the Department of Energy in 1980.  "Empathy: we can't afford to waste it."  Choose to be empathetic to those who will recognize and appreciate it.  To those who won't, move on, because life is short and resources are limited.  Just like The Giving Tree, you really only have so much to give during your short time on Earth.





4 comments:

  1. "The Giving Tree" is a sweet enough story, but for every school or summer camo=p talent show through which I've ever sat, some pair of talentless kids has used it as a basis for a dramatization, which has ruined the book for me. when you mentioned that the crazy ex was obsessed with the book, I assumed she psychotically identified with the tree. Some people have no grasp on reality whatsoever.

    It's unfortunate that the ex has ruined Dr. Seuss's works for you. I don't think, for the most part , that they are especially profound (except, perhaps, for "The Butter Battle Book" and "Oh, the Places You'll go," which have a bit more depth than most of his works. for the most part, i think they're intended to be simple stories. While a few have messages, mostly they're supposed to be for fun. When you have some nut case in your or your spouse's life who treats them as if they're scripture, it ruins everything.

    I'm in Hawaii.

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    1. I wouldn't say those books are ruined for me. They're kind of ruined for Bill. In fact, when we first got married, he didn't like it when I would watch the Muppets or listen to music by the Muppets. Ex had kind of ruined them for him, too. They were symbols of guilt and shame.

      I don't think I really had a lot of exposure to Seuss when I was a kid. I didn't have any of his books, although I know I read them in other places. I was more exposed to Shel Silverstein, both through his books and his songs with Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show.

      Hawaii sounds nice. I've never been there.

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  2. Bill's ex is psychotic. She sounds like a master manipulator who view egocentric view of the world positions anyone who has contact with her. I can not imagine the suffering Bill had to endure.

    Personally I think it is healthy that you write about your feelings towards her. It would be unhealthy to bottle up these emotions. All the reasons you stated for writing about all of this are valid and healthy.

    My husband's father was an abusive shithead. The only reason I don't rage against this waste of a human being is because he is dead. He died long before I came into the picture. Mike made peace with all the shot his father put his family through. We rarely talk about it. If He was alive it maybe a different story.

    Keep writing about what feels good to you. Speak your truth. I respect that you are honest about your life. It gives us all the courage to speak our own truth.

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    1. I don't know if she's psychotic. There may be times when she's angry that she is. Most of the time, she's just very manipulative and narcissistic.

      Every time I think I'm done writing about her, something else comes up. This time, it's Bill's daughter's decision to reconnect with him. She commented that she had noticed a pattern in the family. Her mother has been married three times. Her grandmother has been married seven times (and is actually probably worse than Ex is). I'm beginning to think Ex may be about to ditch #3. Why would stepdaughter bring up her mother's three marriages if #3 was going well? It would seem to me that if there wasn't a problem in paradise, stepdaughter would still be talking about how #3 was her "everyday daddy" and she wouldn't be looking at those patterns, worried about repeating them.

      Of course, that's none of my business. It's a matter of curiosity more than anything else. I'm sure the story will come out eventually if Bill and his daughter keep talking.

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