When I was a young boy, I remember sprawling across my mother’s lap as she softly tickled my back and arms. Within seconds of that gentle touch to my skin, I’d fall into a wakeful trance and wouldn’t move a muscle for fear she would stop. I remember just after Natalie and I were married; I asked her if she might tickle me for a minute. She paused and gave me a curious look, then started to move her hands toward my armpits and wiggle her fingers as if to make me giggle and squirm. I laughed and said, “No, no, sweetie, not THAT kind of tickle … this kind …” I’d then softly run my fingers down her arm, and she said, “Oh! I see.”
Our children inherited my love of soft tickles, especially as little kids. It was a great way to sooth a sorry heart, distract from the pain of a scraped knee, or help a sleepless baby relax on a hot summer night. Mitch often asked me to tickle his arms when he was home on hospice. It soothed his worried heart.
A few years ago I was talking to my 11-year-old son, Wyatt, about philosophical stuff. He was naturally drawn to ideas and wanted to discover the meaning and purpose of things. He asked me, “Dad, what makes a person good at tickling?” I thought a moment and said, “Well, it seems the softer the touch, the better it feels.” Searching for a deeper understanding, he said, “Yes, but what makes someone good at it?”
“I don’t know, son, what do you think?”
Wyatt said, “Empathy.” I was astounded by his insight. He continued, “You know, Dad, the people that tickle the best are the ones that love it the most. They really get it. They understand how it feels, so they know just what to do.”
Humbled by his deep view of empathy, I began to wonder how Wyatt arrived at such profound insight. Then it occurred to me empathy is one of Wyatt’s gifts – and I think empathy a spiritual gift.
I caught a glimpse of Wyatt’s capacity for empathy when he first saw Mitch in the hospital. Little Mitch sat softly on his bed with a pale smile, tethered by tubes, cables, and monitors. His breaths, soft as a moth while his heart, a beating rage. Mitchell’s chest was beating so violently; it looked like a grown man was trying to punch his way out of his rib cage. With a furrowed brow, Wyatt fought back a river of tears as he saw his brother losing his life to an enemy we could scarcely see.
Wyatt, only seven years old at the time, knowing his older brother was about to die, was careful not to say anything that would frighten his older brother. He was not only sad to see his brother go, but he also put himself in Mitchell’s shoes, at least as much as a 7-year-old could, and felt sorrow over all that Mitch would miss. Wyatt not only felt sympathy, he felt deep empathy.
Surviving the death of my child, I have come to understand the greater difference between sympathy and empathy. While they have similarities, they are not the same. In many ways, one is more mental while the other almost spiritual. Sympathy knows the words, but empathy understands the music. Sympathy, say’s “I’m sorry.” Empathy feels your pain and cries with you. Empathy is mourning with those that mourn.
I remember, just after his funeral, walking behind little Mitch from the chapel to the hearse. I nearly collapsed to my knees in grief. I could hardly breathe. Within moments, I’d follow my son’s body to the cemetery, which drive would be the longest drive of my life. A friend of mine stood on the curb, and with tears in his eyes hugged me. He didn’t say a word – he didn’t need to. We both wept. At that moment, I knew he cared, and that brought me a measure of healing.
I’m grateful for the teachers in my life – from my youngest son to dear friends – and to many of you who teach me empathy … not so much by your words, but deeds. I’m especially grateful for Mitch, my most tender teacher.
Just before Mitch fell into a sleep from which he’d never wake, he said, “Dad, can I tickle your back?” Mitch had a heart that wanted to serve – so I said, “Sure, son, as long as I can tickle yours.” Those precious 2 minutes were the softest, most tender tickles I have ever experienced. Mitch had empathy, and it showed. My sweet wife took a photo of that act of love from a dying little boy. I then turned to Mitch and tickled his arms and face. I kissed his forehead and said, “I love you, son.”
Mitch whispered softly, “I know.”