Empathy Loves Company

By Ron Ciancutti
Photo: © Can Stock Photo Inc. / Lighthunter

On numerous occasions I’ve tried to teach my kids that their way of approaching a problem is just as—if not more important—than solving the problem. When they came home from school moaning and whining about a large school project or research-heavy paper, I railed against their complaints.

“Attitude is everything,” I would bellow. “Look at it as a chance to learn, to evolve, and develop yourself. If you start by complaining, the whole thing will be a chore. Take control of it. Be strong-minded.”

When they sustained injuries, forgot homework assignments, lost their lunch money, sat in emergency room X-ray booths, etc., and were in a full-blown tilt--calm, cool, collected Papa softly smiled, patted their hand, and said, “You’re OK. I’m here. I’ve got this covered. No big deal.”

I’ve heard them give this wisdom to their own children, admonishing the ones who say, “I can’t,” by responding, “Of course you can!”

So this is my mantra, my rep. The grandkids even warn each other when one of them complains too much. “Don’t let Papa hear you talk like that.”

So, with that established—here’s a revelation: I have come to learn that what it takes to be positive, to dig deep, to set one’s jaw, to overcome the odds, and to accomplish something may NOT always be accessible. There are times in everyone’s life when that mountain may be just too high to scale. It’s good to be positive, but I have learned that working hard may not be enough. The fact is that sometimes … you simply lose.

When did this revelation come to me? Very recently.

A Minor Procedure
My doctor detected a large stone in my right kidney. Having no family history regarding this condition, I was rather alarmed. Upon hearing the medical options available, I decided to have the stone “blasted” with sonar waves, where the mass is broken into “easy-to-pass” bits through the kidney by a type of focused water jet. Some of you who are reading this and who have had this procedure might be shrugging your shoulders and saying, “Yeah, Ron—been there, done that, no big deal.” And from the way the procedure was explained to me, it didn’t seem like much either.

But evidently the stone was stubborn, requiring a lengthy treatment. A few larger fragments floated free from the blasting, and by the end of Recovery Day 2, I had a very sore kidney and was passing the pieces (some smaller, some larger) quite regularly. The prescribed painkillers had the effect of binding up my gut at the same time, so by Day 4 my normal waistline was three sizes larger. I was doubled over from the gut ache, and the burning sensation of passing the stone fragments was constant. The stabbing pain in my back was relentless, and there was no medication, no position, no stretch, no sleep, or any way to feel better. I was in absolute misery. All I could do was ride the pain out. If someone had approached me at that moment and said, “You need to dig deep and find the positive here, Ron,” I’d have hit him with my heating pad and ice packs.

When the healing finally began several days later and the pain was lessened by ibuprofen, the women in my life were all too happy to inform me that I now had a sense of what childbirth is like. I have to say that the lesson learned from that experience has really taken root. I will never be the same.

A Sobering Lesson
I learned that when one is truly up against it and there is no place to hide, one’s real character is revealed. I thought I was “strong enough to fight back” but I was only “strong enough to endure till the situation hopefully got better.” While one is in that zone of pain with nothing to hold onto, a whole lot of “quit” presents itself, and it is almost impossible to ignore.

I now have much more empathy for victims of disease, accidents, personal loss, etc., because there are times in one’s life when the inner voice whispers, “Why fight this? Give in. Break down. Fall apart.” And the response is, “I have no idea why or how but I have to hang on.”

To all those who endure a sense of hopelessness (and my pain is a thimbleful compared to the 55-gallon drum with which other people suffer), I humbly apologize. I never before experienced the type of desperation that plays with the mind in the most negative of circumstances.

I can now empathize with those human beings who have become homeless or bankrupt but are only met with suggestions to attend job fairs or personal finance classes. I can now recognize the desperation of a man walking into his first AA meeting after decades of substance abuse. I can now feel for the cancer victim who has finished her treatment cycle only to be told that more tumors have been found and the treatments must begin again.

These are the people who have to “dig deep.” It is they for whom I pray today.

Ron Ciancutti is the Director of Procurement for Cleveland Metroparks. He is not on Facebook, but he can be reached at rdc@clevelandmetroparks.com.