Think of it this way; imagine trying to communicate to some one who has been completely deaf their whole life what its like to hear. You could use sign language to explain how the ear uses specialized organs to pick up differences in atmospheric pressure which are then changed to an electrical impulse which is then "decoded" by the brain. You could teach this deaf person everything there is to know about sound and hearing. They could earn a PhD on the subject, yet they could never understand the actual experience of hearing. And so it is with parenting.
I clearly remember people trying to tell me what being a parent is like and in my hubris I believed that I actually understood. As soon as I became a parent it was clear that I had no idea. It was like a deaf person hearing for the first time. I have been thinking about this a bit lately. I see parents with their kids and all the various problems that they face individually, and I have to realize that though I know of what the various situations may be, I have no way of knowing what it is like to experience them.
I'd like to introduce Carmen to you. Carmen is one of my son's best friends, and sadly has been battling a rare form of cancer. She's a tough little girl and I'm always amazed to see her smiling from ear to ear despite what she's going through (as the photo of her above suggests). Surgeries, chemo-therapy, weight loss, fevers, feeding tubes and living at a hospital have unfairly become part of this sweet little girl's norm. It's heartbreaking and, as someone with kids of my own, I feel for this family - I really do. But that is about as much as I can do. Sure we attend fundraisers and buy/donate what we can, but as much as we do that for them, I think in some misguided subconscious way we do it for ourselves even more; unintentionally believing that if we give enough perhaps through some cosmic, karmic way our kids might be spared the same ordeal - which, of course, is total bullshit. Supporting someone financially or otherwise is part of feeling for someone. So I feel for them, but I can't feel with them. This is the part that troubles me because I don't want to. I know what would have to take place for that to happen and I feel guilty for it.
My brother Jared's oldest child is autistic and although this child's life is not in immediate danger his situation poses life-long challenges. Jared's youngest suffers from severe Crohn's Disease which is life threatening and life-long as well. When I think of Jared and his wife's ordeals my reaction is the same as my feelings toward Carmen and her family; I can sympathize, but cannot, nor do I want to, empathize. This creates guilt.
The guilt isn't because I don't want my kids to suffer. Don't think for a moment that I think good parenting requires an ill child. Kids not getting cancer is a good thing. No, my guilt comes from the fact that I'm not willing to experience the trauma in order to be a better friend or brother - so that they wouldn't have to be so alone. I'm like a deaf person refusing to hear with my friends because I fear it will be too loud. My solace is that we are alone in our heads. Though its nice to have someone around that has had similar experiences, I'm not convinced that its a prerequisite for being comforted, because what we experience is internal. It exists uniquely in our own brains. So I will continue feeling for people, not necessarily with them, because really, that's all any of us can do.