An old friend from work is in a very messy situation.
She’s a wreck. Her family is a wreck.
And there is no way to get around it – she brought it on herself.
I’m sure you know someone like Maggie. If there are two choices, she will pick the worse one every time. It’s as if she confronts every decision by saying, “Oh, this way will probably screw up my life, but I’m going to do it anyway.”
And the “anyway” NEVER works out. I wonder if maybe there was a time, way back before I knew Maggie, when a bad decision did work out for her. When she skated away from a mess. Perhaps it was so exhilarating to come so close to disaster – and escape – that the thrill of a bad decision is irresistible.
Honestly, though, I don’t think so. I don’t believe Maggie makes terrible decisions because they are exciting. I think the answer is more mundane. Maggie has no capacity for prediction. There is no “cause and effect” gene in her. Simply stated, she has no imagination.
Imagination is a necessary skill in decision-making. We need to be able to see what could happen. And Maggie’s lack of imagination is specific. She can’t imagine the bad outcome.
Most of us excel at picturing the worst. That’s why we worry. I wrote once that my mother turned worry into an art form. I named it “Ditch-picturing.” No one could conjure up more vivid images of loved ones lying in a ditch than my mom.
But Maggie can’t picture the worst. (It’s probably one of the reasons she has so many friends, despite our frustration with her.) She never sees the worst when it is right in front of her, never mind imagining future troubles. She has no idea why her life is such a mess.
Oh, we friends advise her. We try to steer her in the right direction. But Maggie is like the Titanic, moving inexorably in the direction of disaster. We may say, “Why don’t you take care of that now, and we’ll help you, instead of missing another deadline?” And she says, “Oh, thanks. I will.”
But she doesn’t.
And the authorities, whoever they are at the time, eventually come swooping down with demands and penalties and blame.
Of course, she deserves it.
Every lousy thing that has happened to her in the years I have known her is her own fault.
There are bills not paid, calls not returned, forms not filled out, jobs lost, cars abandoned.
And yet, what I feel for Maggie is not blame.
Talking with a mutual friend recently, the friend said, “I can’t feel sorry for Maggie any longer. She brought in all on herself.”
I understand how my friend feels. It’s maddening to watch someone make the same mistakes over and over. We help Maggie, but is it helping or enabling? Can she ever learn to save herself if we keep rescuing her?
And yet. Empathy.
I see that Maggie has made a disaster of her own life. But I also see how easy it is for small disasters to pile up. Or to accept that your life is a mess, and just go with it. To turn a blind eye to your own complicity in the mess.
I can still feel sympathy for Maggie, even as I recognize her responsibility. If someone had cancer from a lifetime of smoking, wouldn’t you still feel sad that they are in pain? Can we find the same sympathy for a person who cannot manage her life decisions as we can for a person who couldn’t manage her physical addictions? Both made bad choices. Can we love them anyway?
Can we forget blame?
Can we forget about what people deserve?
Or at least give people the kind-hearted thing we all deserve – to recognize their humanity, their imperfections, and their pain.
Empathy without blame is a good definition of Kindness.