By Marianne Delorey, Ph.D.
“I believe empathy is the most essential quality of civilization.” –Roger Ebert
When I was 11 years old, I finally convinced my parents to let me try sleepaway camp. I chose a girl scout camp in New Hampshire and, although it was awkward and I did not make any friends, I must have had enough fun that I asked to go again the following year.
That time, I made a ton of friends. Looking back, I had the quintessential experience of young girls away from home. My bunkmates and I were inseparable. We walked to and from the canteen arm in arm. We were up all night giggling and we told each other everything.
One day, I woke up and I was not well. I told my bunkmate, but I made her promise not to tell the counselors because there was a campfire that night and I did not want to miss out. Later that day, we were walking to the canteen and we stopped in front of the nurses’ station. I was confused. I looked up and the counselors told me to go in. With sorrow, I looked at my bunkmate and she told me, “I couldn’t not tell.” I felt betrayed. I was going to miss out on the evening events. But there was a small amount of relief in me. I did not have to pretend anymore that I was ok.
I was reminded of this story tonight when one of my residents called me over because her neighbor was not feeling well. Nancy told me that her tablemate, Karen, was off. She was shaking, couldn’t eat, and in general did not seem herself. I spoke to Karen and she insisted she was fine. She did not want me to push further, she just wanted to go back to her apartment and rest. Nancy started getting emotional with worry. I amplified this concern and convinced Karen to at least let us call 911 and get checked out by the EMTs.
After she finally relented, Karen turned to Nancy and said, “I’ll never let you forget this.” Nancy said, “I know, you can be mad at me all you want but I couldn’t live with myself if you were really sick and I did nothing.”
Remembering my first year at camp and the experience with my friends the second year, I noted, “Friends may sometimes be a pain in the neck, but just imagine how bad it would be if nobody cared.”
And so it is in most communities and families. We may get sick of hearing how worried some people are for us. It may get old hearing the concern in their voice. But the silence of not having loved ones in your corner is deafening.
So, I implore you. Listen to your sister’s concerns about the safety of your home. Install handrails and remove scatter rugs just to make sure she knows you care. Hear your son out about internet safety and install a antivirus program. It may never be needed, but again, he will know that you know he is watching out for you. Talk to your older neighbor about using her walker on the stairs. It may be none of your business, but she will know you are thinking about her. Do anything you can to encourage people to care about you and for you. They are not taking away your independence, they are flexing their empathy muscle and our society needs quite a bit more of that.