Giving thanks, with active empathy | Moment's Notice

By Maria Montalvo | Nov 22, 2017

Many years ago, I was talking with a friend of my father’s, Dr. Salvador Minuchin, a brilliant psychologist known for leading a small group of trailblazers in family therapy.

Sal, as all knew him, was visiting my parents after more than a decade of being apart since my family moved from Philadelphia.

We were sitting next to shelves of books and old VHS tapes in my dad’s home office, the New Mexico sunshine was warming the tiny room through the windows and my dad left the conversation to get some cookies.

I had not seen Sal since I was 12 or 13, but he still looked at me with the genuine tenderness that an adult has for the children of best friends who he loves dearly.

He asked me about my plans now that I had graduated from college and for my life as a grownup. I shared my dreams of becoming a professor and my hopes for a promising relationship.

He asked if anything was worrying me or of concern … a question that we are not used to getting during the usual pleasantries of modern conversation.

After stumbling over some words and not saying the things that kept me up at night, I told him that my problems are nothing compared to those of other people, so it was not even fair for me to bring them up.

He smiled his tender smile and said, “But they are yours.”

Although I would argue that Sal was not quite as brilliant as my dad, I have remembered that statement since the day he said it.

Every year brings us new joys but also new heartbreaks or at least heartaches. Every year also brings tragedy or sadness to people we know and people we see. Their problems are theirs, as Sal said, but he cared about my problems, whatever they were, because he cared about others.

His simple question may seem intrusive or inappropriate for casual conversation, but it exhibited an extraordinary level of compassion. When we are in a place of crisis or hiding pain or tolerating an old wound, a simple but deeper question can make all the difference.

I am currently reading this year’s book of stories by our local Scriber Lake High School’s Steep Steps Press, “This Is A Movement,” the sixth book published in so many years.

The stories reflect emotional processing through storytelling that results from teachers caring enough to ask, “What is your story?”

Rather than the standard 20 questions about grades, friends, and college through the lens of expected performance standards, these young writers are asked to tell their real story, writing their own endings, but also enlightening us about the world we do not or choose not to see.

They also seem to begin the process of working through and hopefully recover from some extremely painful experiences, all through writing (a concept I can certainly understand).

Before I picked up that book last Thursday night, I talked with my uncle from Puerto Rico. We talked about the island and the conditions since the hurricane more than two months ago.

Families unable to work or get around the island, living in homes without intact roofs, grateful on the days a friend lets them sleep at their home in a dry bed while supermarket prices skyrocketing now that the media and politicians are no longer paying attention.

We also talked about him, and his adjustment to life without electricity or normal work life or even being able to walk where he used to. He said he was luckier than most on the island, but he also said he was exhausted, exhausted by how difficult life is now, exhausted by the pain of those he cares about and those he does not even know.

So my uncle is reaching out, going into the mountains and asking people how they are coping and finding ways to help (and allowing us to help him do that).

During this week of thanks, it is important to take the time to reflect on how lucky we are to have our loved ones, family and friends, dogs, cats, livelihoods, homes, things that make us happy – we have much to be grateful for.

We also have to reflect on those times when we did not feel as lucky or as whole or as happy. We have to reflect on those who are suffering so we maintain our ability to be active in our empathy.

Sal passed away a couple of weeks ago.

Obituaries were printed in the New York Times and the Washington Post, and both mentioned a book he wrote with my dad.

I will forever be grateful for Sal, a man who verbalized a lesson my dad taught me – to reach out to those who may or may not be in the good place we hope them to be.

We need to speak more directly to each other, about how they are and what we can do for each other to validate that hope.


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