Reaching the age of sixteen for me meant one thing: freedom. Freedom to drive anywhere I wanted, to finally date out in the open and with my parents’ knowledge, and in my family, to get my ears pierced. Little did I realize at the tender age of 15, that once the magic day arrived, aside from receiving the official license and two new holes in my head, I was still subject to parental rules and permission and earning the trust that might allow me to gain more of the freedom I craved. I was not given a car; I did not have free reign over my person, let alone my manor, and I slowly realized I, in fact, didn’t know everything and was not as independent as I thought I might become.
Having built up a series of successful car borrowings from both parents, my dad allowed me to take his on a particular outing one day. I don’t remember where I went, only that on my return trip home, after being stopped behind another car at a red light, I felt like proving my finesse with public utilities, so I took my foot off the brake prematurely, thinking I had perfectly timed the moment when the light was going to turn green. It did not turn green, I did not pass go, and instead of collecting $200, I became responsible for much more fiscal damage than that on the front bumper of my dad’s car. It just happened to slide under the back bumper of the car in front of me, smashing it and the radiator fan just behind the grill. The other car was basically undamaged, and thankfully, the owner took mercy on me and let me go without exchanging any information. I still, however, had to answer to my dad. Let me insert here that I have five older brothers who had had their fair share of run-ins with my parents, so I was not unaware of the level of justified anger my father was capable of reaching. I was scared out of my wits, for this time, I would not be listening in the next room as one of them got busted.
I parked the car in our garage at home, close enough to the towers of Dr Pepper, Shasta, and gas cans so that no one could walk in front of it and see the damage. I decided to keep quiet for a day to either a)figure out what I was going to say, or b)hope the problem would go away on its own. Neither happened, and after my dad took his still-drivable car out the next day, he uh, noticed that the front end didn’t look right, and gee, the temperature gauge was slowly creeping up past where it should have normally stopped. When he returned home later that evening, he pulled me aside in private and asked if I knew anything about this mysterious damage to the front of his car. I went into instant defense mode and fabricated some story about how a possible crazy person must have used a sledgehammer to bash in random bumpers of cars as they sat in parking lots. He remained silent, and I felt the hot embarrassment of being caught in my lie as I hung my head in obvious fear. I didn’t know what his reaction would be, but I finally lifted my head and with a quivering soft voice and tears streaming down my face, I admitted that I had hit another car and it had crunched in the bumper and that I was so sorry I didn’t tell him sooner. Then I braced myself for his reaction.
Within a few seconds that felt to me like a slow death toll ringing, his own eyes got a little damp, and he slowly raised his arms to give me a sweet hug. I cried harder as I hugged him back and told him again how sorry I was for the car and that I had lied. He looked at my face and with no malice, said I shouldn’t have to lie to him, and that he loved me. I had seriously misjudged his ability to put himself in my shoes and to remember what it was like to be a teenager who makes stupid mistakes. On that day, my father showed by example what it was like to display empathy, and in the many years that have followed, I’ve realized that is one of his defining characteristics.
Elder Lynn Mickelson of the Seventy said, “Empathy is the gift to feel what others feel and to understand what others are experiencing. Empathy is the natural outgrowth of charity. It stimulates and enhances our capacity to serve. Empathy is not sympathy – it is instead an action of understanding and caring. It is the basis of true friendship. Empathy leads to respect and opens the door to teaching and learning.” In other words, empathy is absolutely required if we are to achieve any level of godliness in this life or the next.
My father could have very easily gotten quite firm with me not only for damaging his car, but also for keeping that fact from him, and then lying once confronted with the chance to come clean. If he had chosen that route, he would have been justified in my mind in doing so, but in retrospect, I wouldn’t have felt any closer to him, and I certainly would not have felt an outpouring of love and respect and comfort in that situation or in many following. It takes strength to consider consequences in the heat of the moment, but it is in those small and fleeting moments when our individual characters are most defined.
One of my favorite lessons on character in the Book of Mormon is in the last few chapters of Alma. Captain Moroni is off being a hero and erecting standards of liberty everywhere he goes, Helaman’s stripling warriors are off reclaiming lands and getting war wounds in the process, and Pahoran, a righteous son of Nephihah, is back home trying to keep the peace from the difficult position of chief judge. Somehow, letters are going back and forth between the three leaders, and we get to read and witness the unfolding of what could be a battle of the egos instead turn into a great display of integrity and empathy.
Helaman, in leading his faithful two thousand, is proving successful, but some have been taken prisoner and almost all of his young warriors have been injured. Still, they press on, but he writes to Captain Moroni, wondering what’s wrong with Pahoran, and for goodness’ sake, why isn’t he sending more troops?! We’re dyin’ out here! Moroni, who feels quite the kinship to his fellow general, couldn’t agree more, but instead of gossiping back and forth with Helaman like I might end up doing with another woman, he faces the issue head-on and sends a searing epistle to Pahoran. For 36 long verses, he complains to Pahoran, condemning him as a traitor, calling him idle, lazy, and slothful, neglecting those who are fighting for him by withholding reinforcements and provisions, and basically bringing down the wrath of God upon him, claiming that in order for them to succeed in their battles, the government would have to get rid of Pahoran as their head, and don’t let the door hit you on the way out. And by the way, after we’re done conquering Lamanites, Pahoran, I’m coming after you.
I have read Alma 61 many times with eagerness for Pahoran’s answer, thinking it just has to change after being so wrongly accused of so many awful things. Pahoran’s response is almost other-worldly. “Moroni, your great afflictions grieve my soul! I have been wanting so much to help you the past several months, but there has been some serious dissension here in the government body, to the point where an entire group has overthrown our land.” And this is the part that gets me: v.9 “And now, in your epistle you have censured me, but it mattereth not; I am not angry, but do rejoice in the greatness of your heart….My soul standeth fast in that liberty in the which God hath made us free.” V. 19, “Moroni, I do joy in receiving your epistle, for I was somewhat worried concerning what we should do, whether it should be just in us to go against our brethren.” “Moroni!” he says, “I’m still your brother in God! My heart aches for your troubles, but let’s do the best with what we have, together!”
If I had been Captain Moroni, I would have felt like a real heel, and perhaps he had a heely moment or two, but his letter back to Pahoran was one of the greatest displays of patriotism in the Book of Mormon. Then Moroni takes his armies back to help a brother out, they overthrow the dissenters together and reclaim their original land of Nephihah, the Lamanites are driven away, Helaman comes home and starts rebuilding the Church in support of the government under Pahoran, and peace is established once again. At any moment, Helaman, Moroni, and especially Pahoran could have been defensive and justifiably angry, but they chose to walk a higher ground, tread in the others’ footsteps, and as a result, found much success by working together.
This story may have had its happy ending, at least for a decade or so, and it’s wonderful to take from it a lesson to think before you speak, to give the benefit of the doubt, to choose not to be offended, and mostly, to trust in God that He will follow through on His promises. It is not always easy to do so, especially when the going gets rough. We like to think that we’ll be strong enough if calamity hits, but as humans, we are fallible. That is the very nature of human beings. I have made the error of believing that being a righteous priesthood holder or having been called to any position of leadership in the Church somehow offers automatic immunity to mistake-making. It’s easy to feel that way when we are spoken to every General Conference by such upstanding examples of goodness, and when we are even surrounded in our own homes and ward and at meetings by good people striving to be better. In reality, we all falter. We judge others. We gossip, ridicule, and doubt. Even Lehi, facing starvation once Nephi’s bow broke, began to murmur against the same God who had delivered him time and again in the wilderness. In similar weak moments of those around us, it is not our place to judge – it is our place to remember that, in the words of an old roommate, you have a billion sins, I have a billion sins, and though my billion may not be your billion, it’s still a billion. Therefore, we must uplift and lend a hand where necessary. Understand enough to care – that is where real empathy begins. The kinds of actions that follow the caring are the kind Jesus Christ would have done.
Elder Neal A Maxwell described a few of Christ’s own moments of the sincerest empathy: “Jesus Christ, who by far suffered the most, has the most compassion—for all of us who suffer so much less. Moreover, He who suffered the most has no self-pity! Even as He endured the enormous suffering associated with the Atonement, He reached out to others in their much lesser suffering. Consider how, in Gethsemane, Jesus, who had just bled at every pore, nevertheless restored an assailant’s severed ear which, given Jesus’ own agony, He might not have noticed! (see Luke 22:50–51).
“Consider how Jesus, while hanging so painfully on the cross, instructed the Apostle John about caring for Jesus’ mother, Mary (see John 19:26–27). Consider how in the midst of the awful arithmetic of the Atonement, Jesus nevertheless reassured one of the thieves on the cross, “To day shalt thou be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). He cared, even in the midst of enormous suffering. He reached outwardly, when a lesser being would have turned inwardly.
“He healed 10 lepers, but only one returned to thank Him. He didn’t chide that leper, whereas you and I sometimes unload on the undeserving. Instead, He simply said, ‘Where are the nine?’ (Luke 17:17).
It takes perceptivity, patience, and love to so customize counsel. Doing so is the very opposite of the unloving and impatient stereotyping we see in so many sad human relationships.
Though sinless Himself, He bore the sins of billions. Thus His empathy and mercy became fully perfected and personalized. Indeed, He thus “descended below all things, in that he comprehended all things.”
Alma 7:11-12 mentions that He did all this for humankind to realize that after all is said and done, He gets it. We can turn to Him because He gets it. In fact, God will run to us and succor us because He gets it.
He understood the incredible emotions I was feeling during one of my own life-changing moments. Making the transition from non-parent to parent was huge and intimidating for me. As my belly got larger and larger, and I realized there was no turning back from this roller coaster, I began to think of all the places where I fall short, and I would lie awake at night convinced I was going to make a mess of our child’s life. Poor Ted got roused out of several peaceful dreams as I relayed how our home and our marriage were in no way ready to receive a sweet and precious spirit from heaven. While we both still feel that way 16 months after she already came, it is comforting to know we are not alone in those emotions and that there are friends and family willing to help during the more stressful times. I asked Ted how, in becoming a father, he has been able to better relate to Heavenly Father and the emotions He faces regarding all of us. Besides feeling like he couldn’t even fathom comparing himself to Heavenly Father on any level, he said, “Maybe I’ll understand more when Tessa begins to learn right from wrong and starts making her own decisions. I’ll be able to see if she follows what we’ve taught, but it will be hard for me to see her make the same mistakes we’ve made.”
I found it interesting that rather than focusing on an exponential love we both feel for our daughter and that Heavenly Father feels for each of us, Ted’s first thoughts were on Tessa’s agency. It is a gift we have all been given, we have probably all taken for granted or misused, but which has the power to bring us salvation if we so choose. I was reminded of Enoch’s conversation with God in Moses 7 when God is looking at all His creations that surpass the number of the sands of seas, including each of us. God begins to weep, and Enoch is surprised to see it, and asks how it is possible that an eternal and omnipotent God can weep over all these many creations. God’s reply is simple: v.32-33 “Behold these thy brethren; they are the workmanship of mine own hands, and I gave unto them their knowledge, in the day I created them…and gave unto man his agency…and commandment, that they should love one another, and that they should choose me, their Father; but behold, they are without affection, and they hate their own blood.” Enoch then understood why agency is such a powerful gift, and in the visions that followed, it is recorded that he wept many times for the same reasons, experiencing empathy for God’s sadness. No wonder we are admonished so many times in the scriptures to come unto Christ – the writers of those words have known either from their own experience or from those closest to them the consequences when we do not.
We can use this power wisely to stand for something bigger than ourselves. It is true among our associations at work or at school, but even more importantly, in the home. When my own father was faced with how to best discipline me in my shortcoming with his car, he might have been in a particularly soft mood, or my tears might have had the same effect that swayed that cop down in Georgia to rip up that ticket, but I prefer to think that in that moment, he might have remembered something thoughtless he did as a teenager to his own parents. We cannot always choose the action, but we can always choose the reaction.
I see many of the same qualities in my husband as I do in my father. They both have a quiet strength that is complementary to my own brash rowdiness. As my mom would put it, their still waters run deep. Neither my dad nor Ted are prone to boasting, because their quiet strength means it is not necessary. I’ll never forget the day many years ago when I attended a Church function and I was approached by an older woman who had been in my parents’ ward for at least three decades. She asked where my father was, and I replied he was still doing rounds at the hospital, at 8:00 on a Saturday night. Sister Boyer then put one hand on her heart, and the other gently on my arm to emphasize a point. “I love your father,” she said out of the blue. “He comes to visit me every time I’m in the hospital, and I’m not even his patient.” It was this and many dozens of moments like this that have silently shaped my own father’s character: a man who was stretched thin at work, and with any free time he had, he was giving it to others, most especially his family.
Since he is not one to boast or complain, it has taken me many years to understand that hours I may have missed in his company due to work responsibilities were not spent idly. I could have chosen to understand this earlier in my life, and to be empathic to the many demands on his time. I could have taken a life lesson from a musical I watched frequently in my youth.
Jane and Michael Banks want nothing more than to feel close to their father, but their adventures seem to get them into trouble and further the distance between them and him. On a day when they have potentially ruined his career at the bank where he works, they run into Bert (Dick Van Dyke) who gives them some wise words of counsel:
Bert says, “Beggin’ your pardon, but the one my heart goes out to is your father. There he is, in that cold heartless bank, day after day, hemmed in by mounds of cold, heartless money. I don’t like to see any living thing caged up.”
Jane responds, “Father? In a cage?”
“They make cages in all sizes and shapes, y’know. Bank shapes, some of ‘em, carpets and all.”
Jane is still not convinced. “Father’s not in trouble. We are.”
Bert replies, “Oh! Sure about that, are ya? Look at it this way. You’ve got your mother to look after you, and Mary Poppins, and Constable Jones, and me. Who looks after your father, tell me that. When something terrible happens, what does he do? Fends for himself, he does. Who does he tell about it? No one. Don’t blab his troubles at all – he just pushes on with his job, uncomplaining, and alone and silent.”
Michael interjects, “He’s not very silent!”
Jane then humbly asks, “Bert, do you think Father really needs our help?”
Bert seems to feel uncomfortable that he’s said too much, but he replies, “Well, not my place to say. I only observe that a Father can always do with a bit of help.”
To put it in the words of the late President Faust, “In terms of giving fathers love and understanding, it should be remembered that fathers also have times of insecurity and doubt. Everyone knows fathers make mistakes—especially they themselves. Fathers need all the help they can get; mostly they need love, support, and understanding from their own.”
On this Father’s Day and as many days as possible hereafter, we can reach out and show Christlike empathy to those men whom we admire and revere the most. They may make mistakes, as we all do, but how blessed both parties can be if we choose to focus on their goodness and love. If we can do so, we will be that much closer to divinity.