The Double-Edged Sword of Empathy

So a couple days ago, while I was in the middle of doing some promotional streaming for our charity fundraiser, my phone rang.

Even though I was in the middle of a live-broadcast discussion of mental health, I still tried to pick up. But, since the phone was muted, I was slow and I missed it.

Then a text came in:

“Oot would like to call you about a baby bird he found.”

As soon as I’d wrapped up the stream, I gave a call back. My eldest boy put me on speakerphone. (He is only 11, a stripling youth, and therefore does not know that this behavior is anathema. Plus I love him, so much is immediately forgiven.)

(A rare sighting in the wild)

While they’d been out camping, he explained, his little brother (Cutie, 7) had spotted a baby bird that had fallen out of its nest. They were worried about it, and they wanted to bring it home.

Did it have feathers? I asked. Or was it still pink with its eyes closed?

Kinda some feathers, he said, but it was pretty pink. And yeah, its eyes were pretty closed.

Did you try to put it back in the nest? I asked.

It was way too high up, he explained. They could tell it was the right nest because they could hear the other birds up there peeping. He was obviously hungry because he kept opening his mouth, but he wasn’t very loud.

He and Cutie had a theory that maybe he was weak because he wasn’t very good at peeping up for food. Or maybe his mom had pushed him out of the nest because he wasn’t a very loud peeper.

Or, I offered, maybe it might not be able make much noise because he was hungry and weak.

Oot pointed out they’d already fed him some oats mashed up with some water. Also, he added, they really wanted to bring him home and take care of him.

(The Byirb in question)

This is what happens. You read to them. You talk about emotions, and listen as best you can. You celebrate and encourage their empathy… and then they grow up wanting to save baby birds.

And oh, I love them for it. And at the same time I worry I’ve done them a bad turn despite my best intentions. Because we need that empathy. It is, in my opinion, the defining human characteristic. But it is a double-edged sword. When you have a lot, it gets really heavy. And you can’t just pick and choose. You carry it all the time. And all too often it feels like it’s got no handle either, so you just kinda walk though your whole life constantly cut up and bleeding….

And I love that they’re like this. I love that they want to save baby birds. I wouldn’t want them any other way. But still, they’re *my* baby birds. And I want to keep them safe from both hurt AND harm….

But I can’t keep them from the world, and I can’t keep them from being who they are. It’s just hard, knowing part of your job as a parent is to let your children be hurt by the world.

It’s going to be a lot of work, I tell him. It’s helpless, and it will need care and attention. Warmth and food all the time. Even in the middle of the night….

Oot says he knows.

And there’s a really good chance that the bird won’t make it, I say. Even if we do everything right. Even if we’re really careful, there’s a good chance that it’ll die.

Oot replies that even if that happens, at least we’ll have done our best. And if we do everything we can, we won’t have to feel as bad. And he says that at the very least, if we’re keeping it warm and fed, it will know that someone cares. If it does die, at least it would know (as much as a baby bird can know anything) that someone was there for it at the end. It wouldn’t have to be alone.

(They named him “Mr. Cheepers.”)

These are the things my son explains to me. Or maybe I say them to him. I honestly can’t remember, because the truth is that I’ve said those things to my children in the past, and now they say them back to me. It’s a hell of a thing, having children that listen and remember. It warms my heart and breaks it all at once.

So I tell him of course he can bring it over. And I’ll help them do research. And I’ll help them take care of it. And we’ll do our best. And I tell him that I love that he cares as much as he does.

Then I hang up the call and get ready for the bird to die before he even gets home. Or to die in the night. Or to die after we’ve taken care of it for two weeks. I need to be braced for it, so if it happens I won’t be blindsided and hurt too badly. So if it happens I can ease the boys through the experience…

But they get back with the bird just fine. What’s more, it turns out there’s a place that takes baby birds and cares for them. It’s only an hour away.

I ask them if they’d like to take the bird there, rather than have us take care of it ourselves. It will have a better chance with people who know what they’re doing, who know birds and how to care for them…

And they surprise me by saying yes. Which is impressive in a whole different way. It shows that they don’t just want a pet, or to be the people who nurse a sick animal back to health. They want what is best for the bird. It’s selfless in a way I didn’t expect.

So that is why I spent almost three and a half hours driving through the twisting back roads of Wisconsin on Tuesday night. Phone ran out of battery. Got lost.

But at the end of it all:

(Yay!)

There is a clarity in crisis. When something is very wrong, it’s easy to know what’s important. That means you can focus. That means it’s easier to decide what you can do. This is why crisis can be oddly comforting.

(This is why a lot of us do odd things: like fantasize about the zombie apocalypse, or inadvertently create or promote crisis in our own lives.)

The trouble is, of course, when you have multiple crisis to choose from. The older you get, the more you know about the world, the more you realize that there’s an endless all-you-can-stress buffet of calamity going on every day. I spend a long time on the horns of dilemma, wondering which fire I should be throwing water on. Fascism or the Pandemic? Fighting homelessness or hunger?

Or, just to pick something entirely at random… should I spend my evening trying to save a baby bird, or should I spend it trying to promote my charity fundraiser that only has a few days left?

In this case, I chose the bird. I’m conflicted about that. I’m proud of Worldbuilders, and the work we do has improved the lives of tens of thousands of people over the last decade. What’s more, the current fundraiser is important for the financial stability of the charity. A lot of the products over there are things designed to appeal to my readers. So it feels like there’s no better person to promote them than me…

(Case in Point.)

It’s hard for me to remember that other people *can* spread the word about the fundraiser. And no matter how hard I hustle, nothing works better than word of mouth. Either people will be excited enough to buy stuff and tell their friends during the final days, or they won’t.

On the other hand, I *was* the only person who was going to save this baby bird. And the only person who could have this particular little adventure in empathy with my boys…

So I’m trying hard to count this one as a win. I saved a baby birb and was a pretty good dad.

If you want to check out the cool things Worldbuilders is selling, you can head over here.

Later space cowboys,

pat

This entry was posted in babies, baby ducks, Because I Love, Cutie Snoo, day in the life, musings, OotBy Pat29 Responses

29 Comments

  1. Posted June 26, 2021 at 9:01 PM | Permalink

    I was certainly that kid too… You did a great job, Pat. That day with the bird, and in raising them to listen, to be empathetic, and gentle. We need more of them in the world. So in a not-so-small way, you are still changing it for the better. :)

    • Posted June 27, 2021 at 11:56 AM | Permalink

      I really have high hopes for them that I’m *desperately* trying to reign in. I want them to make the world a better place, but that’s a lot to put on a child. The weight of that expectation can crush a kid.

      • Mihcal K
        Posted June 27, 2021 at 3:35 PM | Permalink

        dealing with people at work daily i can with full confidence say that (the way you presented the conversation went) your son is way more *human* at tackling problems now than what most people reach in their lifetime – great job and keep it up

        ps: you know a writer by how they can turn the smallest most meaningless thing they encounter into something that can shape a generation

  2. Posted June 26, 2021 at 9:19 PM | Permalink

    You & the kids did the right thing.
    “Pain shared is pain halved; burdens shared are weights halved.” Valdemaran Proverb.
    If you hadn’t chosen the bird, you know yourself well enough to know that it would have bothered you forever. Many of us can carry the Worldbuilders banner. We’re a support network for more than just a charity; we’re a support network for you, too. You are a good man. You are a good Dad.
    None of us can do everything, but all of us can do something. You chose wisely.

  3. Fred
    Posted June 26, 2021 at 9:48 PM | Permalink

    Lovely story – you’re raising some good kids there.

    Also, I agree with your insight on crises. I sincerely believe that’s where we get extremists from, people who crave the clarity of constant crisis the way I crave alliteration; it helps them make sense of a world they feel outside of to imagine it always near its end.

    Keep up the good parenting.

  4. Adam S
    Posted June 26, 2021 at 10:18 PM | Permalink

    These posts are like intermittent lighthouse beams of happiness in the stream of doomscrolling. I love reading them.

    I don’t have anything particularly insightful to add, but I couldn’t let this one go without writing something to let you know someone appreciates it.

  5. Kris
    Posted June 26, 2021 at 10:44 PM | Permalink

    Good story Pat. It encourages me to strive again to reach for a greater perspective in my parenting. Impressive of your boys wanting what’s best for the bird, knowing it will deprive them of the pet and of the heroism.

    I’ve never thought about the clarity-in-crisis before. I resemble that.

    On the never-ending conflict of having many crises and only finite time, I read a book called “The Best Yes” a few years back that I wholeheartedly recommend (if I recall there were some faith elements in the book if it matters to you).

    Thanks again for sharing the story.

  6. Stuart
    Posted June 26, 2021 at 11:59 PM | Permalink

    This is the sort of thing I needed to read tonight. The world needs empathy as much as it needs charity—and can hardly expect one without the other. Thank you for sharing a little love, and a little advice on doing fatherhood well.

  7. Posted June 27, 2021 at 9:44 AM | Permalink

    I’m a licensed wildlife rehabber out of New York, and while I know you’re fundraising for your own charity, always make sure to donate a little if you take a wild animal to a rehabber please, or set up a Facebook fundraiser for them! It’s baby season and we’re all exhausted and full of orphaned wildlife right now. In NY, it’s 100% non-profit only and we operate only on our own dime and donations… feeding these guys isn’t cheap! Thanks for saving the bird!

    • Posted June 27, 2021 at 11:21 AM | Permalink

      Oh I did. They were amazing. Kind and knowledgeable and even agreed to stick around so I could drop off the birb after hours.

  8. Nick G
    Posted June 27, 2021 at 9:56 AM | Permalink

    Raising good children is one of the greatest charities you can give the world. Take comfort in that: the rest will sort itself out. Hope you’re doing well. Be good to yourself.

  9. Mae
    Posted June 27, 2021 at 10:17 AM | Permalink

    Had a similar experience with my own firstborn several years ago. I get a text at work from the babysitter…”Firstborn says you have a birdcage somewhere? They just came home from camp with a hurt baby bird”
    We do indeed have a birdcage that I picked up free from a yardsale site years ago with the hope of actually getting a pet bird (so far a vain hope, but we still have the cage…)

    A little while later I get a photo texted to me of a forlorn-looking young fledgling bird with a drooping wing and an open beak. My kids tried catching bugs for it but it wouldn’t eat anything. A quick google search tells me this is most likely a young robin. Since Firstborn wanted to take care of things himself I had him get on the computer and start doing some research. He called a local vet who said they couldn’t do anything but directed him to a wildlife rescue. He called the rescue & they said the best thing for it would be to put it back where he found it because its parents were likely nearby. But he explained how its little wing was hanging weirdly & he thought it was broken. A 45 minute car ride to the rescue after work & they looked at the bird and reassured my son that he had been right to get help for this one as it was injured. As far as we know, they treated & took care of the bird until it was strong enough to release. At least that’s what they told him when he called a few weeks later to check on it.

    • Posted June 27, 2021 at 11:25 AM | Permalink

      Yeah. This wasn’t the first bird we’ve cared for. But it was the first tiny, tiny baby.

      We’ve helped two so far, and only one got better.

      It was tempting to lie to them about the one that died. But I need the boys to know I’ll always be honest with them, even when it’s something emotionally hard. Plus, it’s helpful to start dealing with some of those harsh realities earlier in your life. Those skill don’t improve if you don’t have a chance to practice them…

  10. Posted June 27, 2021 at 11:32 AM | Permalink

    “…at least we’ll have done our best. And if we do everything we can, we won’t have to feel as bad.”

    I love that mindset, and it’s one I’ve done my best to live by. Mighty fine people you’re raising Pat.

    • Posted June 27, 2021 at 11:54 AM | Permalink

      He’s better at it than I am… I’m trying to learn from his example…

  11. Skyweber
    Posted June 27, 2021 at 12:13 PM | Permalink

    I am a “pet dad” of three cockatiels and this has made me closer to birbs – though I always loved and cared for animals.
    I have ended up finding 3 baby birds at different time periods of my life, but in the end could save none of them. I always felt bad about it, even though I tried my best (I had no wild life rescue facility to bring them to).
    One thing that makes me feel better is that one cold rainy night I hear a tiny screeching sound for a while. I assume it’s a cat messing around and keep playing on my PC. The sound continues unabated so I end up opening my window to look out, it’s really dark but I have a flashlight, and there it is. A cat was closing in on a smaller form – the source of the sound which now I realize, were cries for help.
    I rush out even though I am in my jams (I *never* take them outside), flying down the three flights of stairs to rush towards the baby birb like a mad man. It was like 1 a.m., almost everyone in the building was asleep.
    Fortunately I reached the birb before the cat, which was, thankfully, cautious before aproaching the tiny creature. I realize that it was colder than I thought outside, a actual stormy night.
    I bring the birb back inside, manufacture a warm box with… how do you say in English… it’s kinda like sawdust, but much bigger, it’s not a dust at all. Small non toxic wood remnants to keep it warm. Some water too, as well as some food (I had never taken care of a baby, only adult birbs, so I didnt realize I should make a baby food for it)

    In the end it died 2 days later. That one hit me hard, I felt like I failed the baby birb. Badly. But as I thought about it I also realized that at least it did not die in a cold stormy night, freezing or being eaten, or both at the same time.
    It was warm and gently looked after. At least it was peaceful.

    If only the voice inside my head would completely accept that and make me feel completely free of the guilt of not googling on how to care for it.

    But alas, sorry for the big text. Thanks for sharing, this blog post warmed my heart, even if I was reminded of my failed attempts.

    Your fan,

    Skyweber

  12. Bethelynn
    Posted June 27, 2021 at 12:40 PM | Permalink

    This is just what I needed to read today, I have been struggling with whether I made the right decision when taking in feral kittens off the street after the mama was hit by a car. I gave almost identical warnings to my three children, while also telling them to steel their hearts, just a little, because kittens sometimes don’t make it, and even if they do we are a temporary home. We got four kittens at 4 weeks old, all girls, bottle fed every 3-4 hours.

    There is Ferro, the bottomless pit affectionate grey tabby, Bear, the mischievous brown tabby fluff ball, Ari, the sweet cuddly blonde cotton ball, and Shim, the runt, a grey and orange torte 1/3 the size of her litter mates, so small she could be mistaken for a mouse. Even after seeing Shim and knowing the outlook wasn’t great we all instantly fell in love, and she ate and played and purred, and we were all so hopeful for her. Vet visits telling us she was good, turned to a couple days later being told she had many congenital problems and it would be best to ease her suffering, we were left stricken, my kids most of all. Three days after little Shim left this world, we also had to euthanize our cat Drizzt of 18 years.

    It was empathy that made both choices for us, to take in these kittens, and Drizzt 18 years ago (as an abused cat kept in a kennel all day my neighbors) and the choice these last few days to end Shim and Drizzt’s suffering. We have all been so very drained, because in the midst of our grief we still have these other lives to care for, 3 healthy and strong kittens and two more very old senior cats, brothers who are 17. I’ve been doubting my decisions to take in any of them,q if it’s worth it to be so heartbroken by the eventual loss and pain, especially when it is written so clearly on my childrens faces. This helps though, reading what you wrote, and being reminded again of the importance of empathy in action, and that our kids will learn these lessons one way or another, at least they are learning them with plenty of room for all of their emotions.

  13. Willow
    Posted June 27, 2021 at 1:13 PM | Permalink

    What a beautiful story and excellent investment of your time. I’m really glad people like you are creating humans and teaching them things like empathy and values. Thank you.

  14. Jeroen de Jong
    Posted June 27, 2021 at 5:21 PM | Permalink

    I was delaying going to bed and starting a new week, when I wondered what Patrick Rothfuss was up to. It had been some time since last I checked. I discovered you are posting more again, awesome! Then that you posted on the birthday of my dad, 26th of June. Just reading your post was a pleasure, you write like no other… But the story was even more brilliant and brought tears to my eyes. You are an amazing person and dad. It just captured so perfectly the bittersweetness of the world and made me fantasize about the possible future. What kind of dad will I eventually be? Hopefully a bit like you! We’ll see. :)
    In any case I look forward to checking up on you again and catching up on some posts. Much love!

  15. Lois W Matelan
    Posted June 27, 2021 at 8:36 PM | Permalink

    When I was a young engineer, years ago, I was leaving for work one Spring morning when I spotted a baby mockingbird out of its nest in our backyard, It was bigger than yours, but definitely too little to fly. I didn’t know what to do, but I picked it up and put it in a shoebox with some cotton fluff and some raw hamburger to eat. I talked about it at work, and one of my co-workers, a nice guy whose wife was a nurse and was home with their week-old baby, said that she could take care of it. It was still alive when I got home, so they came and got it. They fed it hamburger with tweezers and water with an eyedropper. That bird grew, rode on his shoulder around the house, learned to fly, and left them after three months. The next Spring it came back to them, briefly, with its mate. Such an all around satisfying story.

  16. Jemma
    Posted June 28, 2021 at 12:08 AM | Permalink

    Aw, this is really sweet. Your boys are indeed good eggs. Just today I observed a mama robin sitting in her nest on my next door neighbor’s house. Nurturing her babies as you do yours. You’re a great father, keep it up. Hope to see you soon xx Jemma

  17. Posted June 28, 2021 at 10:59 AM | Permalink

    The big-bear heart is genetic, if you’re lucky. I believe that you’re lucky.

    My little guy is 16 now, and scans the highway for stray cats to save while we’re driving.

    Super grateful for the gentle ones.

  18. Julia Harrington
    Posted June 28, 2021 at 11:30 AM | Permalink

    As a parent and a nurse and an animal lover, I feel this deep in my soul.

  19. Emily Hauer
    Posted June 28, 2021 at 11:48 AM | Permalink

    I was that kid; and I’m still that adult.

    A couple of months ago I heard a pretty loud thump from the back of the house. I went to look and a bird had hit the glass door in the kitchen and was laying mostly motionless on the patio. I grabbed a hand towel and picked up the bird. It looked like a juvenile robin. I was hoping it was just stunned and would be able to fly away after a short period of time. Unfortunately, after about 15 minutes of resting in that towel in my lap, the little guy stopped breathing. But at least he/she didn’t die alone. I was there, I tried to make him/her as comfortable as possible, and I cared. I told my boyfriend about it, with tears in my eyes, when he got home from work. He gave me a hug and a kiss and told me that I was a good person, and that he wouldn’t have thought to do the same thing.

    You’re right — empathy is hard to carry. But empathy is what makes the world a better place. You are certainly raising your children to be good people.

  20. Susan A Missett-King
    Posted June 28, 2021 at 3:26 PM | Permalink

    You’re doing good, there, Dad. Trust the people at WorldBuilder to do what they do and allow yourself to have these times with the kids.
    Also, REGI also gives tours if you ever want to take the kids there another time.
    Keep up the good work.

  21. Ben Jones
    Posted June 28, 2021 at 3:35 PM | Permalink

    I was that kid too. It WAS hard when my expectations were so different than how the world usually “worked” as a little person. It was difficult to find my place many times. Vulnerability was often punished, cruelty rewarded… But I persevered as myself, as the person my parents tried to raise… often using examples from books to internally justify my persistence that kindness “should” be the norm… Now, at 47 I’d rather be battered by the harshness of the world, than not be a bearer of gentleness to other wounded creatures (aren’t we ALL?). Keeping the light for others is what makes life worthwhile, to me. Your works have nourished me in that belief. :)

  22. Ben
    Posted June 29, 2021 at 6:19 AM | Permalink

    I remember my old man help us save a baby blackbird when my brothers and I were kids. Also, I’m going to be a first time dad soon with a baby boy on the way on the way in October!
    Lovely to see the blog is busy again Pat, this one gave me all the feels.
    Thanks!

  23. Posted June 30, 2021 at 12:31 AM | Permalink

    Thank you so much for this post, Pat. This story really captures the heart of an issue I’ve been chewing on myself for quite some time as a psychologist and parent: how best to put the value of empathy into pointed action without getting swallowed up by the world’s pain. Obviously, I haven’t reached any sort of conclusion (ha). At the same time, after years in the trenches of working in psychiatric hospitals as a provider, administrator, and professor, I’ve collected a few scattered concepts that have helped me. In hopes that sharing them might be helpful to you (it’s the least I can do in exchange for the hours of accompaniment your work has provided me on lonely commutes to dark places), I thought I’d mention some nuggets I’ve picked up along the way here.

    Perhaps the most important nugget I’ve come across is that the greatest thing we can do for the world is simply to liberate our own minds; because it is only from this place that we are really able to act empathically. When we find our true center (perhaps “alar,” if you will), we are naturally compassionate. The awesome and ceremoniously disgraced Harvard Professor, Ram Dass (formerly Richard Alpert, Ph.D.), said “I can do nothing for you but work on myself. You can do nothing for me but work on yourself.” The more time goes by, the more I understand how deeply profound and true this idea is. I’ve trained countless doctoral students who enter the field with an earnest zeal for helping others, and then go a million miles an hour in the wrong direction before realizing their mistakes. Invariably, it is because their own ego is in the driver’s seat. Rather than putting the welfare of others first (e.g., like your children were able to do with the bird/birb), there is a focus on what oneself can contribute. Taking a compassionate stance, it’s important to acknowledge that this type of focus on the self can come from any number/type of traumatic experiences, modeling from the outside, etc. It’s ok if it’s there. To some extent, we all have this type of ego in us. But by working on ourselves, we can chip away at it. Once we’ve found our core, it doesn’t steer us wrong. We will know what to do. And we know that we don’t have to do it all. It’s not about us having to saving anyone or anything. It’s about engaging in compassionate action when presented with the opportunity without attachment to the outcome, just like you did with the bird (i.e., the willingness to care for it regardless of whether or not it died, while also putting charity duties on hold). I think that when we find our center, we can fall into the calm of knowing that we are one contributor working in concert with so many others to help. We don’t compulsively help to alleviate our own aversive internal experiences that can come from empathy like sadness and guilt. Instead, we simply operate from a place of compassion.

    The other nuggets are too varied to get into here, but these books are some of the source materials: 1) Joan Halifax’s Standing on the Edge, a book about coping with the moral outrage we feel when presented with problems in the world, 2) David Hawkin’s Transcending Levels of Consciousness about how to step outside ego, and 3) anything by Ram Dass, particularly the audiobook on Audible Experiments in Truth, because this talks about operating from one’s true center. Lastly, it’s less on the nose than the previous recommendations, but Vivekananda’s writing on what’s called “karma yoga,” which is the practice of engaging in moral/compassionate behavior without attachment to outcome (e.g., the bird living or dying), may be helpful. Personally, I loved it.

    I hope you found this helpful.

    Warmly,
    Tara

  24. Noor Fingolfin
    Posted July 22, 2021 at 9:24 PM | Permalink

    This is beautiful. There is a parable Muslims learn in the hadith that underlines the power of actions like this. (I’d butcher it, so search for keywords Islamic, parable, dog, well.)

    You must be doing a lot right! I pop along to the blog every so often to see how my favourite living storyteller is doing with it all, as well as Googling for news of… a certain eagerly-anticipated event in connection with his storytelling… but there is always something nourishing here even in absence of those tidings.

    I remember reading an entry or two some time ago that spoke of depression. It is nice to think those feelings do not seem to be holding sway at the moment, and I hope that is and remains true!

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