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Understanding memories and emotions

By Debbie Leffler • Aug 11, 2017 at 10:00 AM

I read an interesting article in the Sunday edition of The New York Times entitled “Empathy Gadgets.”

It was about how there is a movement to create devices to simulate the symptoms of diseases so that doctors can better understand their patients. Apparently there exists a device that can cause people to feel what it would be like to have Parkinson’s disease.

As the author of the article put it, “When the signal from the device reached full strength, my hand was flapping uncontrollably, like a flag in the breeze. It felt both heavy and somehow separate from my body. I was handed a pen and paper. My attempts at writing came out as chicken scratch, illegible even to me. When the power to the device was finally cut, I felt a relief beyond words.”

Engineers are working on devices to make people understand what it feels like to have other diseases such as emphysema (shortness of breath), diabetic nerve disease (neuropathy) and disordered thinking in psychiatric illness.

All of us — not just doctors — could certainly use more empathy.

Teachers, too. One of the chief benefits of having to take continuing education classes to renew my teaching license is that it throws me into the role of a student, and I feel how my students feel when they have to study for a crucial exam or complete a lengthy assignment.

Now, as I have grown-up children and grandchildren, I look back on certain things and I can understand what my parents and in-laws must have felt. At the time, I just didn’t get it.

For example, I can remember my parents showing up at my house with a trunk full of college papers and memorabilia. I was annoyed — why did they bring it? I had no room for it! Couldn’t they have held on to it?

Now, as I slowly clean out drawers and closets of my own, I have started bringing the same sorts of boxes to my own children, and am met with the same bewilderment and annoyance I once felt at these unwanted boxes.

I also remember, before we had our first baby, my husband’s parents arriving at our house with a chest of drawers. It was freshly painted white, with the knobs on each drawer painted colorfully. They had transported it all the way from Nebraska in the back of their car, and they thought it was a big deal. It had been my husband’s when he was a baby. I remember thinking: Great, a chest of drawers to keep the baby’s things in — OK, useful — but I didn’t understand the fuss they were making over it, and the fact that they had made it good as new. Looking back, I can feel the emotion that went into their giving us that gift, and how it was their way of preparing themselves for their first grandchild.

Then there was that first Christmas when we took our two babies to Nebraska to visit them. When we got there, we saw that they had bought two cribs — not just Pack N Plays, but actual cribs. Two cribs, for our babies to be comfortable in during our brief stay. I thought they had gone overboard and, although I’m sure I thanked them, I recall thinking that they had unnecessarily spent too much money on our brief visit.

Now, looking back, I can feel the hope they must have felt that we would come more often and their hope that they would get to spend lots of time with their Ohio grandchildren. I didn’t understand then; I only felt my own selfish unwillingness to go through the long journey to Nebraska with little kids. I wish I could go back in time and visit them more often.

Then there were the scenes when we would load up the car in the parking lot of my parents’ condo building in New Jersey — four kids, car seats, suitcases, things to do in the car, snacks, lunch for the drive home which my mother had prepared for us. “Why are they standing there in the parking lot? We can load the car ourselves. We’ve already said goodbye upstairs,” I thought to myself. “And why do they have that sad, wistful look on their faces?”

Now I understand.

Debbie Leffler is a free-lance wrier who lives in Norwalk. She can be reached at rleffler@neo.rr.com.

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