Good grief. A Charlie Brown Christmas turned fifty this month. I loved the movie as a child and now, as an adult, I find its messages powerful and comforting. It says it's ok not to feel ok....and you don't need to be perfect to be lovable.
For starters, it opens with the Peanuts gang singing, Christmastime is here. Happiness and cheer... only to have Charlie Brown visit Lucy's psychiatric booth because he's depressed during what's supposed to be the most cheerful time of the year.
Then there's Snoopy's incredible prize winning doghouse decorations (a materialistic delight) and, of course, the scrawny Christmas tree.
Even though Lucy orders Charlie Brown to get, "the biggest aluminum tree you can find ... maybe painted pink," he picks out the only real tree in the lot, ignoring Linus' warning, "I don't know, Charlie Brown, remember what Lucy said? This doesn't seem to fit the modern spirit."
You root for Charlie Brown as he picks up the scrawny tree ... and then you laugh as lots of needles fall off. What's not to love about Charlie Brown? His bravely carrying on in the face of struggles is something we can all identify with.
Peanuts' creator Charles Schultz was a genius, cleverly exposing the elephant in the room and presenting it for what it is. In an entertaining way, he let us know it's ok to be sad in the face of all the jolly holiday celebrating. And he taught us about empathy. Having Charlie Brown bond with a pathetic little tree, embracing it with so much empathy that he brings it home, proudly loving it just the way it is, was brilliant. (To this day, I always have a pang of guilt when I pass up a less than perfect tree.)
So, in honor of Charlie Brown's empathetic deed, the gift-giving season, and the challenges merriment brings when someone's world is falling apart, it seems a good time to highlight the gift of empathy. It's a gift worth mastering, giving, and receiving. It comes in handy when crisis hits, your child's having a melt down, or you're stuck dealing with a disgruntled coworker or ex.
Simply put, empathy is being able to step into someone else's shoes and truly understand their situation, feelings, and point of view. You feel what s/he is going through as if you are also going through it yourself. There's no judgment, advice giving, or one-up-manship
Empathy often gets confused with sympathy. The difference? Sympathy is a more general feeling of sorrow for another person's situation. It's recognizing someone is suffering, whereas empathy is feeling the other person's pain.
I thought I was pretty good at practicing empathy until last year when my daughter returned from college and shared an excellent, short video with me. As it ended, I blurted out, "Wow. I never fully appreciated the difference between empathy and sympathy until now." She smiled, pleased she'd taught me something that might be useful the next time I tried to give her motherly advice -- rather than hugs.
It's only a few minutes, so please watch (and perhaps share) the video posted here. It wonderfully, and simply, shows the value and essence of empathy and how it's a much more helpful gift than sympathy.
I hope you'll embrace your inner Charlie Brown this holiday season and that you'll be open to giving, and receiving, the gift of empathy. It's a great way to connect authentically, and heal.