The Dance from Anger to Empathy


“My mother is driving me nuts again,” Carol tells me as we hike up to Grant Hill during one of our weekly hikes. Her comment is in response to my inquiry about how her week was going. The edge of her reply regarding her elderly mother gets my attention.

Before I can say anything, Carol continues; “She never listens to anything I tell her. Everything is an argument; no matter what I say, it is always wrong in her eyes.”

I’m surprised at the anger in her voice and look over at her as we cross the bridge spanning the creek just before starting the steep uphill Grant Hill is known for.

“I hear you. But why so much anger?” I ask. It’s not like her; Carol is one of the most generous and civic-minded souls I know, and you really have to push her before she loses her temper.

“She should know better! I have her best interests in mind, yet she discards all of my suggestions aimed at helping her.”

I could relate. Her reply fills my head with memories of the constant phone calls from my stepmother, who was at her wit’s end regarding my father’s stubbornness. It only worsened as he aged.

“Do you remember how stubborn my father was?” I ask her, thinking of how she witnessed my frustrations regarding my father’s stubbornness during our previous hikes some years ago.

“What makes the situation with our parents so hard is that our roles with them change as they age. They become the child, and we become the adult. It isn’t easy because they will always see us as being their children instead of the adult voice of reason we are trying to be with them.”

Carol doesn’t reply as we start up the base of Grant Hill, a twisty section of trail I had nicknamed “The Mistress” as its constant elevation gain teaches you discipline; go up it too fast and you will find yourself gasping for air. Come back down it too fast and your leg muscles will feel like they are on fire. The forced discipline aside, the constant elevation changes make it one of our favorite hikes.

I could feel she was still chewing on her anger. To distract her from it, I decide to take a different tact.

“Carol, what is the difference between intellect and emotional IQ?” My question is aimed at getting her to see the bigger picture beyond her anger.

“One is knowledge of the world while the other is knowledge of self,” she tells me.

I’m impressed by the directness of her answer. I throw another question at her.

“Would you say that a person with knowledge of the world would also have an equal knowledge of self?”

“I don’t know” she replies, “I guess it would depend on the person.”

“Ok,” I reply. “Let’s take my father for instance. He was a Yale graduate with a degree in Engineering. Yet, he was also of the generation where men were taught to be the strong head of a household and never to show any weakness. His aging and failing health were in direct conflict with those teachings and he struggled with my suggestions because to follow them meant he was no longer in charge.”

Carol mutters a curse in response. We are hiking the steepest portion of Grant Hill, so I’m not sure if it’s due to her leg muscles feeling the elevation or instead, she is having one of those moments of awareness where you jump on yourself for not seeing something beforehand.

“My anger over my father’s stubbornness wasn’t as much about his behavior as it was more over my frustration with his inability to see how outdated his thinking was. ” I tell her. ”He couldn’t see beyond that generational viewpoint, no matter how practical my suggestions were. What frustrates us with our parents is seeing the mismatch between their emotional IQs and their intellect. Yes, they should know better, but that’s not the way they see it.”

“So, what do we do?” she asks as we head across the twisting path leading to the next series of hills.

“Every worthwhile goal requires a sacrifice needed in order to reach it” I reply.

“For example, when dieting we stop or sacrifice so to speak, the eating of potato chips to reach the goal of a thin waistline. With my father, my goal wasn’t to feed my ego, thinking I was right and he was wrong because that mindset certainly would not do our relationship any good. Instead, because the goal of maintaining my relationship with him was important, I sacrificed my judgment about his behavior with the awareness that he was a product of his generation. He was doing the best he could for where he was at. He didn’t speak my language any more than I spoke his. He lived life his way, and I had to allow him that choice. In doing so, I sacrificed the anger behind my judgments for the empathy created by my awareness of the bigger picture as it related to my goal of maintaining the relationship.”

We’ve reached Grant Hill’s highest elevation and stop for a moment stop to take in the view.

“But the real test,” I tell her, “Was when he died. His health had been failing and he was too weak to raise himself up in bed. Hearing of his declining health, I made arrangements to fly out and see him at the hospital. But on the day before I was due to arrive, that morning he tells the nurse and my stepmother that he has had enough of being sick. He went back asleep and died a few hours later.”

“So you never had a chance to see him or say goodbye?”

“No, I did not. I was saddened by what I felt was his stubbornness showing itself again. It took me a long time to be able to accept the fact that he didn’t want my last memory of him to be one of weakness. His spirit was tired, and this was his last gesture to protect our legacy together. During his funeral, I recited a Native American poem from Nancy Wood’s book, “Many Winters. Prose, and Poetry of the Pueblos” as his Eulogy. It wasn’t something he himself would have chosen, but I think he would have liked the nature of it. I said goodbye to him in the best way I knew how. “

Carol looks over at me for a moment, and I can see the empathy in her eyes. “I’m sorry you never got to say goodbye in person, I’d be sad too,” she tells me.

I offer one last comment before I turn to head back down the path we had just climbed.

“My sadness aside, moving from anger to empathy in our relationships is an ongoing dance. Sometimes our dance requires us to circle quickly with our partner, while at other times, we can only hold on and move slowly. Regardless, someone always leads. For me, the beauty of the dance is reflected in my memories of it. When the dance with my father reached its conclusion, the only thing reflected in my memories of it, was to acknowledge that in the end, we both did the best we could.”

Photo by Saskia Johnson on Unsplash

About Edward Bonapartian

Edward Bonapartian is the author of Reflections on the Art of Balance – practical wisdom for balancing your life through mind, body, and spirit, and, The Stories of Our Lives – a story of healing through dreams and intuition. His articles on intuition and dream work have been published in Dream Network Journal, Rocky Mountain Dream Journal, Reiki News magazine and The Energy and the Art of Balance e-newsletter. Connect with Ed on Facebook or Google+.