Monday, October 5, 2009
Letter to my son: Empathetic Sean
For a paper I recently wrote, I researched the importance of storytelling, and the history of universal human interaction through telling stories. This is what I included in my paper: Jeremy Hsu talks about empathy, and the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. “We can attribute mental states- awareness, intent- to another entity. Theory of mind, as this trait is known, is crucial to social interaction and communal living- and to understanding of stories. Children develop theory of mind around age four or five.” (Hsu,"The Secrets of Storytelling: Why we love a good yarn," 2008) To make this point, I’d like to tell you a story about empathy. After reading it, think about how this story affects you on a personal level. Are you able to relate to it because you are familiar with the book involved? Or because you have children that were once small and learning about everything around them, and you are proud to be their parent?
Imagine the story, The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein (the book jacket is green with a darker green tree, and she is giving the boy a red apple). Do you know what happens in this classic picture book? It’s about a tree, and she loves a little boy. He plays in her branches and eats her apples, and the tree is happy. As the little boy grows, it becomes more and more difficult to make the boy happy. And every time the boy leaves, she is sad. She gives him her leaves, her apples, her branches, and finally her trunk so the boy will be happy. Until, at the end, the boy is a very old man, and all he wants to do is sit. And the tree sits up as straight as she can, and invites him to sit. And they are finally happy, together. I wrote the following letter to my son (I have identical twin boys), and I’d like to share it with you. Imagine me reading it to him. I invite you to read it aloud yourself since I cannot tell this story to you in person.
To my dearest Sean- (July 19, 2006- the twins were not quite 4 years old yet)
Tonight Ashton picked up a random book off the top of the dresser for you both to share, and for me to read to you before bed. It was The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. I took off the book jacket (as I always do when I read a book- to protect it, which is silly since the jacket is there to protect the book), and we all snuggled down together in Ashton’s bed. I told you the title and author, which you pronounced perfectly, twice. I know that Shel Silverstein is no longer living, but I didn’t think that it would make you very happy if I shared that information with you, so I didn’t. But I did wonder is Shel ever peeks in to listen to a reading or two of his books or poems, kind of watching over his readers. Just a thought I had. So I started reading and you both were very quiet and attentive- and still for once- you are both very wiggly while I read! Every now and then you or Ashe would say, “and the tree was happy,” or “the tree was sad,” (like after the boy cut down her trunk to made a boat and sailed away). After I turned that page, the boy came back after a really long time as a very old man. The tree said, “I’m sorry, Boy, but I have nothing left to give you- my apples are gone.” And I read in my best squeaky old man voice, “’My teeth are too weak for apples,’ said the boy.” And you repeated, “The apples are all gone.” I continued, “My branches are gone…” and this is when you burst out crying, so sad for the tree! It was an immediate and severe reaction, your mouth open as wide as it would go, as your heart overfilled with immense sadness, and released as your instincts told you to. You cried so hard and so loud, and this made my own tears start- not just because it is a very sad story and I cry every time I read it, but because I felt bad that it made you cry. But more so, I was also crying because I was happy, and so so proud of my little son, who is not yet four years old, because he is compassionate enough to cry for the tree and all that she has sacrificed for the one she loved- that he understands the moral and what is happing in the story. This shows how intelligent you are, and I felt so lucky to share this moment with you and cry together. Ashton had backed away at first because of the anguish emanating from you, but then he started crying because it upset him that we were both crying! So we all held on to each other for dear life until the sobs subsided. Then you told me you didn’t like the “green one,” and that the branches were gone and he made a boat with the trunk (“It’s broken!”), and you wouldn’t let me finish the story to show you that it had a good ending. So I promised I’d take the book downstairs and put it back on the shelf. I love you so much my sweet, compassionate, darling son! I read this book to you a few weeks ago, and while I was sniffling though the end, I guessed you weren’t at that this empathy level yet. I immediately went downstairs to write this letter to you so that I wouldn’t forget the emotions we experienced tonight, so that we could share them together later when you were older. By the time I finished writing, you had quietly crept downstairs, crawled into my lap, and asked me to finish the book.