The Value of Empathy: How One Father Rediscovered His Soul | Josh Rutherford

I found myself in a dark, dark place.

I cried, and I cried, and I cried.

I was mad at God.

I was mad at myself.

Paralyzed with emotion, I lay across my bed, unable to move and not caring if I ever did again.

That moment of mere seconds felt like eons and eons. I can only recount it now because I came out of it, suddenly, against my own will . . . When my son’s hand brushed against mine.

Earlier that day, my wife and I had received news from his developmental pediatrician: Our oldest son had been diagnosed with autism. She said he fell on the moderate level of the spectrum and would need to continue the occupational and speech therapy he had already started, as well as begin Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy. Many more facts and recommendations followed, only a scant few I went on to remember.

I expected the news, so at first, it was no surprise. I acted normal – Shock has a way of settling in slowly, delaying the effects of its venom until well past the initial incident.

Later that night, that same son had trouble falling asleep. He was restless. He cried. I took him into our master bedroom to let him sprawl out on the queen bed. He settled down. He was at peace.

In that silence, that calm, my mind kicked in, recalling the events of the day. My son had stopped crying by then. But I had started.

In the months that followed, my family and I faced a number of changes. My oldest son started his recommended ABA therapy, which meant my wife and I now had to commute to and from his new therapy provider. I started a new job, so I found myself siloed from the ABA shuttling process, with the responsibility falling on my wife’s shoulders. On top of that, my extended family faced issues of their own – divorce, surgeries, hospitalizations, mental health issues – during that stage of the current pandemic, which led to worried phone calls and text messages between the lot of us.

Through all this, I experienced so many conflicting emotions, for a myriad of reasons. I felt too involved and somehow disconnected. Sheltered yet exposed. Thankful as well as resentful.

There were challenges I didn’t want. Surprises I shunned. Obstacles I tried to ignore.

I was depressed. Anxious. Hopeless.

Then one day, for a split second, I snapped out of it.

My family and I were at a neighborhood park. The weather had been stormy as of late, so when it finally broke, we took advantage to get some fresh air. I remained in a funk but didn’t balk at the chance for a change of scenery. As had been the case for that span of months, I found myself unprepared for what happened next . . .

My two boys had taken to the rock garden in the park, climbing over a row of squat boulders lining a pathway. My eldest was atop of one boulder, saw the next, and leapt – landing on his feet. However, one foot slipped out from under him, and he hit his knee, scrapping it.

I expected him to fall into his usual cadence: Focusing on an event and getting upset for a long period of time.

His tears fell. He started to cry . . .

Then he stopped himself from reacting. He rose. He continued to hop down the row of boulders.

This moment – however trite or common it may come across on the page – remains imprinted in my mind. I can’t shake it. I don’t want to. To say it gave me hope or that it moved me would be an understatement. It defies definition or explanation. It forever changed me.

That is not to say I made a one-hundred-eighty degree turn. I didn’t. My depression and anxiety went on; I continued to obsess over my son’s diagnosis and his ongoing treatment. Still, that shift – a slight tilt, a degree of difference – marked the start of a changed course. I began to focus not on my world, rather, my son’s . . . Or more specifically, on how he saw the world, how he experienced things.

That was the beginning of my empathy journey. I challenged myself to see everything through his eyes. I began to appreciate how hard it is for him to adapt in a neurotypical environment. Or how teachings I may have taken for granted as a child may involve a completely different skillset and mindset for him. Or how he has to process emotions he does not yet understand.

That first monumental shift in my perspective was followed by other such small yet impactful moments. Ones that showed me the true nature of my son: A child of courage, resilience, and strength.

I appreciate seeing the world through his eyes . . . And though my commitment to him has never wavered, somehow, through my adopted lens of empathy, I love him more.

The power of empathy should never be underestimated. It has the ability to change not only our interactions with others, but also our own lives for the better. When we take the time to understand another person’s perspective, we can often find common ground and connection in ways that we never thought possible.

This hard-fought sense of empathy has benefited my relationship with our youngest son – a neurotypical boy. I find myself reconsidering the experiences he faces, such as how hard it can be for any child to learn, to face the unknown, to feel lost. The fact that with such everyday experiences both he and his older brother can find their way to laugh, play, jump – and fall only to have the chance to pick themselves up – astounds me. Not because I doubt their abilities. But because in seeing them, in empathizing with them, I see all the wonder within their souls . . . Which will always be the center of my own.

What has been your experience with empathy? Has it opened your eyes to new perspectives?

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