If there’s one emotion with which I most empathize, it’s disappointment.
When people are disappointed, particularly people whom I love so deeply, I feel their anger, sadness, and confusion.
Three fires are raging in Western Montana right now. They’ve left a lot of people disappointed: Montanans, tourists, travelers, ranchers, investors, firemen, city and state government, even the federal government. Plans are canceled. Money is redistributed. Land is ruined. Houses are destroyed. Lives are lost. Dreams are crushed.
It’s one thing to read about these fires in the news, even to watch them on the TV screen, but it’s another thing entirely to be by the fire and feel the disappointment raging stronger than the flames.
Today my family was less than 30 miles from a stage three fire that forced an entire town to evacuate just minutes after we had left the premise. Evacuation was strongly recommended in the surrounding areas, and the fire had covered 80 acres in 15 minutes.
As my family coughed and picked ash bits off our clothes, scanning the now-invisible horizon full of thick smoke, we started to empathize with those around us: John who lives on the third floor of the motel-turned-summer-rentable-housing who is worried he won’t have a home by next week, Grayson whose job depends on the house by the lake that could be destroyed by the fire, neighbors who wonder how they’ll access certain roads or evacuate safely.
I am such a fixer, and disappointment, a mixture of sadness, anger and confusion, is the hardest for us fixers because how do we fix all these emotions at the same time? I’ve never figured it out, and I usually become so frustrated with myself, the situation, and the person’s disappointment that I remove myself from dealing with all of it entirely.
But what it would look like to walk into someone else’s disappointment? To meet them where they are and say, “I empathize. I know I can’t fix it. But I am here.”
About three weeks ago, I was riding in an Uber with a woman who recently lost everything from a fire in her apartment complex. I wouldn’t have known had I not told her I liked her hair.
“Oh, thank you. I own a salon and have been there for so many hours these past couple weeks that I decided to change my own hair for a change,” she said, patting the top of her curled hair with red streaks.
“Long hours?” I asked.
“Actually, I’ve been seeking shelter there because my apartment was burned to the ground two weeks ago, and I lost everything.”
This woman and her daughter lost everything they owned, and barely escaped in time, due to a drunk resident on the floor above them who had left the stove on. The daughter is in college and lost her laptop with all of her schoolwork, her official documents like health insurance, car insurance, and her license. They lost all their family pictures, cash, and their entire wardrobes.
For the twenty-five minute car ride, I asked her all about it.
I wanted all the details, and I kept asking if she had reached out to this organization, or that insurance company, or that fire department, or this relief organization, or that family member, or this landlord. She answered all my questions, but I realized a few things.
First, I realized that in some form or fashion we are all fixers. Just like I wanted to fix her situation by finding resources and people to help her, so did everyone else who was aware of her situation. She laughed about the boxes and boxes of clothes her coworkers had given her, the Fire Proof Box her parents gave her as a half-joke, the food banks that gave her food immediately, and the in-laws who took them in.
But I also realized that no matter how much help she had received, and will receive, this help would not fix her disappointment. Only she could fix her disappointment.
So that’s what I asked her: How are you dealing with the disappointment?”
“You know, not many people have asked me that. But that’s the hardest part. Everyone thinks they know what I need, but they haven’t actually asked what I need. And, honestly, at first I didn’t know what I needed,” she said.
To cope, she is starting an organization to provide Relief Kits to families who have just experienced a fire. The kits include all the items she wished she had had immediately following her own fire experience, like soap, clean clothes, a camera (for documenting the damage and feeling a sense of ownership), a small flip phone that makes a few calls, granola bars, a pillow, and other items.
She said that to deal with the disappointment, she needed to engage with others who felt that same sense of disappointment. She needed to feel like she wasn’t alone, that she is empowered, and that she can empower others.
“I feel so much less disappointed because I know that I can bless others through my situation and become more in touch with my own emotional distress.”
What would it look like if we were all more in touch with our own disappointment? If we used our disappointment as opportunities to bless others and self-reflect?
But more than that, what would it look like if we all stopped trying to fix others in their disappointment but instead empathize and listen as they tell you how they are coping and what they truly need?
I don’t have it figured out yet, but I think the next step in my journey of maturity is to be able to find peace in the fact that I can’t fix others’ disappointment.
Here is to more car rides where I sit in the back seat and listen, as I humbly and peacefully acknowledge the power of empathy.