How an Innocent Comment Can Ignite Memories of a Difficult Past
Sometimes, people with good intentions can come off as offensive.
Empathy is defined as the ability to feel what other people feel. It is a noble personality trait, as it makes people feel understood and taken care of.
I come from a big family of seven siblings: two brothers, five sisters, and our two parents. I am the second-born, and it’s safe to say that my big sister and I carried a heavy burden in maintaining our family financially. My parents were both schoolteachers, and throughout most of my childhood, my mother stayed home taking care of us kids, so we struggled a lot growing up. To make it worse, my father had some periods of unemployment. We always had food, and a good education, thanks in most part to our grandparents and extended family. But also, because to provide for the little ones, my sister and I worked since we were teenagers.
Being a teenager, having to help in providing for my family, maintaining good grades, or at least decent ones, was a lot of pressure. On the other hand, I felt good to be able to help my family in any way.
Today I am a successful professional with a well-paid, stable job, and I feel very grateful for all I’ve learned and gone through throughout my life. I am not ashamed but rather proud of my humble beginnings, and some of my co-workers know my story and where I come from.
One day at work, I was chatting with my co-workers, and somehow we ended up talking about sharing when one of my friends made a comment that kind of shocked me. She said, “You and I know a lot about sharing, because we both come from big families, right?” Okay, so far, she was right, but then she added, “Remember when you had to share the cereal box with all your siblings?” I just quickly thought: No, I don’t have that memory. That was not my case. And I couldn’t answer anything. I guess she saw my confusion and quickly changed the subject. But that comment stayed with me all day.
Yes, I don’t have that specific memory, that was hers. My memory of breakfast with my family was my sister and me walking to the bakery and buying a pound of bread. Sometimes with a stick of butter. Then we’d have coffee, (we never lacked coffee, ever) with the bread and butter, or if we were lucky, Cheez Whiz.
On “the good days” — this is whenever my father was employed — we could have real cheese (American Singles), and some oatmeal or even cornmeal. Never cereal. It was too expensive for four mouths to eat it all in one sitting. Besides, we didn’t have fresh milk; we used some dehydrated instant milk. It came in a big can that lasted for months, or so it seemed to me. It was good with coffee, but not so good alone. Those were my breakfasts when I was eight through maybe twelve years old.
But there was always coffee; if you were hungry, it helped.
Our meals were equally austere, rice and beans, or spaghetti with marinara sauce. If there was meat, it was chicken thighs, of course. But there was always coffee; if you were hungry, it helped.
I spent most of my childhood with three of my sisters. We were each one year older than the other; it was only us four for about six years before the little ones came along. My brothers were born when I was ten and twelve years old, respectively. My little sister came on the day of my fifteenth birthday. By that time, when I was in high school, my big sister and I started part-time jobs to help support them.
Thanks to my grandparents, we all studied in a private school. I remember my sisters and I got benefits at the school cafeteria; they gave us free lunch every day. It was just for us, and another family of five or six siblings. They were athletes, though; we weren’t. But my big sister and I could sing, so we sang the national anthems in every school activity. I used to think that was why we were getting our free meals. Now, I really think that was the school principal’s excuse to help our family in some way.
During my high school years, I always ate my free lunch, went home, and have some coffee. And most days, that was it. I would rest, whenever I didn’t work, and homework or studies were left for the early morning, before school. For me, it was okay, the less I ate, the more there were for the little ones.
Those were my eating habits when I was growing up. There was no need to share cereal because we didn’t have any. We shared our meals; we shared sacrifices, we shared moments. So when my friend tried to be empathetic with me sharing her sharing story, she just missed. And she missed hard because she also had six siblings, but both her parents were and still are medical doctors. So I initially felt offended. How dare she compare her upbringing to mine?
You can be kind and understanding, but if you don’t feel the same as the other, you can’t force it.
My friend is a lovely person who cares a lot about other people’s feelings. In fact, she is a life coach, and I know how important it is for her to be empathetic. So I couldn’t be mad at her. I am not. But I also think that empathy is a trait that comes with you from birth and grows naturally. Not everyone is born with it. You can be kind and understanding, but if you don’t feel the same as the other, you can’t force it either. When your emotional brain can’t make a genuine empathetic comment, maybe your rational mind can bring a more appropriate response or none at all.