Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The rocky path to empathy


My almost 14-year old niece has returned to Boise after a five day visit. I did not profess to understand teenagers before she visited. After five days with one in our house, I profess to know even less.

I believe communication is the common denominator that breaks down most barriers. It is the way we discover things about each other and determine how to interact. Now granted, I prefer written communications to the spoken word, but I think I can carry on a conversation equally as well as the next person. But then I spent five days with my niece.

It was not unlike playing charades with a caveman. Almost nothing Tess or I could say could illicit more than a nod, shrug, or grunt. I felt like Annie Sullivan in the Miracle Worker (Helen Keller's story) when I could get my niece to string together more than five consecutive words into a sentence.

I sensed that the problem wasn't that my niece wasn't an accomplished talker. Her constant companion was a cell phone. I'm assuming that somewhere, somehow, she was talking to someone, but presumably someone around her own age that didn't suffer from adult standards of what constituted a conversation.

At one point, Tess, our niece and I were watching a program about Johnny Depp on television. An image of Depp's movie, Edward Scissorhands flashed on the screen and Tess asked our niece if she'd ever seen the movie. She shrugged and mumbled something about a teacher showing it to them in class. Tess saw the opening and seized on the topic and asked why the teacher had screened Edward Scissorhands for her class. Our niece replied, "To teach us about empathy."

I was stunned to hear a complete sentence and and more than a two-syllable word. But I rose to the occasion and asked, "And did you learn about empathy." She rolled her eyes and said, "No, I'd seen the film before." She then got up and went to the guest room, presumably to talk on her cell phone. Tess and I sat there staring at each other in confusion.

I guess I need to rethink empathy, because although I was 14 once, I haven't a clue what it's like to be one now. The best I can hope for is realigning my expectations and hope I can communicate with our niece when she reaches 30.

But then again I could just call her on her cell phone and giggle alot.
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