Empathy

Everybody makes mistakes.

They deserve a chance. Or at least, empathy.

I have an uncle who, in his late fifties, decided to leave his family and take on a wife 30 years his junior. Together they produced a son. His original children, now grown with families of their own, hate him. His first wife hates him more. A decade after his mistake of abandoning his original family, he’s living the consequences: working full time, in a demanding, low-skill job, his son still in grade school.

By the time his son finishes high school, he will be an old man.

His current wife, young, unemployed, lazy, is starting to resent him too. She was hoping for an easy life after giving him a son post-affair, having high hopes that my uncle, back then a well-to-do businessman, would take care of her for life. But life is unpredictable – there’s no guarantee what you have this moment will be yours forever. She bet wrong. She’s probably feeling trapped in the life she chose, married to an unsuccessful man decades her senior, with a young son, jobless, in a very tough city.

Uncle is the black sheep of the family, where whispers during festive gatherings circulate, mocking his unwise choices.

There’s always that one person in the family where their life mistakes become our lessons.

His biggest downfall is his remorseless attitude and blaming nature. He blames his first son for hating him, calling him heartless, ungrateful, further fuelling the existing hatred between father and son, unable to see his own hand in moulding his son’s stony heart.

I don’t think my uncle is wise, but he deserves to be treated like a person. I recently sat next to him at a family gathering and wanted to know more about his life, particularly about his job and how his young son was doing. Other present relatives made small talk too, but would intermittently insert comments like “people paying for their choices” and “the empty glasses make the most noise”, hoping that my uncle, merry with food and drink, would hear such analogies and be enlightened about his own plight and arrogant anecdotes. He then complained about a persistent migraine because of working late nights. A relative smirked at this often heard complaint, probably thinking such pain served him right.

I felt sorry for him.

Here he was, a man having lived over six decades, in the thick of raising a young child. The road ahead is long.

Very soon he won’t be able to find work, because this isn’t a city that’s kind to old, unskilled workers. Had he made better choices, he would have been a happy grandfather, enjoying retirement, having grown children to take care of him.

I understand what my relatives were trying to do. Communally having a sense of justice, or appropriate internal policing, is good for families. It guides people within the same social circle to make better choices in life – there’s a standard bar, a moral compass of some sort. I would be disappointed if a wrong happened in my community and nobody said anything about it. What went wrong in this scenario? The first children were hurt – their father abandoned them. A wife wronged. A son was born, forever to live with the stain that his mother was a family-wrecker. More practical still, Uncle will have to work well into old age, supporting his young son’s finances for as long as he physically could.

In other words, I think the smirking, analogising relatives were right to see that Uncle had made some poor choices and wanted to educate him. But I didn’t like the way it was conducted. Not through snide comments and indirect sabotage.

If you really care about someone and want them to learn from a mistake, talk to them directly. No passive-aggresive comments, no backhanded stories designed to injure.

Just tell them straight, in the most loving way possible, that you disagree with the choices they’ve made. Point out their responsibility in creating the unhappy life they currently dwell in.

Because snide comments, though to you their true meaning clear, may become lost on another person. Plus, even if Uncle did understand he was being underhandedly criticised, he’d only feel injury but have no heart to change.

He’s already been punished – he’s living it.

There’s absolutely no need to add further injury. He’s a person. Deserving of care and a kind word. If you take true interest in how’s he doing and try to empathise with what he’s going through, he’ll feel that care. There may be a chance that down the road he’ll be truly sorry for the poor choices he made. You can’t really stuff that revelation down someone’s throat. In time, they’ll learn. And if they don’t, they never will anyway, so you might as well show some mercy.

Was there a time you felt pity for a family member who had made a poor choice? How did you react?

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