I am home, finally, after spending a little more than two weeks at a different kind of home in Seattle, where I was born and raised. My new home is a former mining village in northeast England near where my girlfriend goes to university. The name of her postgraduate program: Culture and Difference.

When I was home in Seattle, I saw a lot of old friends, including one who writes poetry. We both do. This is somewhat coincidental, since we became friends around the time we learned to read. Even now, when I see him, we almost never talk about poetry.

“Awareness” and “empathy” have become this decade’s Catch-22 words, full of traps and mind games, yet serving a purpose if only a future moment when we say, “Remember our obsession with that.” Of course, we think we want to become more aware, but do we? Likewise, we think we wish to become more empathetic, but do we actually seek more empathy towards ourselves? How often do we extend awareness and empathy only to find that none will be returned?

Experiment: Take a look at the photos above. If you already know the identity of those depicted, skip ahead. If not, answer the following question sets, then proceed.

Question Set 1: What does Photo #1 suggest to you? What do you feel when looking at it? How would you describe the person portrayed? Would you extend empathy towards the person portrayed?

Question Set 2: What does Photo #2 suggest to you? What do you feel when looking at it? How would you describe the person portrayed? Would you extend empathy towards the person portrayed?

So who are they? Photo #1 depicts Adolf Hitler as a baby. Photo #2 depicts Pope Benedict XVI during his membership in the Hitler Youth. Adolf Hitler never made excuses for himself; Pope Benedict has made plenty. In any event, there you have it. For those unable to identify the subjects in the photos, do you feel more aware? Does that awareness make you more or less empathetic and in which case(s)?

The point here is not to attack awareness and empathy but to explore their limits. For instance, can empathy, especially when offered but not returned, become a subtle form of surrender? At what point does empathy become a form of accepting the unacceptable?

The psychologist Albert Ellis, founder of REBT, explained the extent to which he embraced his concept of “universal other-acceptance,” that being wholly rejecting the view that anyone is or ever has been 100 percent evil. How far did he take this view of acceptance? Ellis proposed that even Hitler was not 100 percent evil. Difficult to accept? Take another look at baby Hitler. For some unknown period of time, Hitler was innocent.  Since it must now always be added that Stalin proves to have been “no better,” consider that Stalin was an obvious paranoid. In the American judicial system, excepting Texas, Stalin might have received a reprieve from the death penalty based upon insanity.

On the other hand, empathy depends upon the person extending it. Any victim of Hitler or Stalin able to profess empathy towards one or the other might be considered (a) pathologically forgivers or (b) saints. During the war, those fighting “Hitler” might have found their determination weakened by allowing themselves to feel any empathy towards him. Ellis claims, “As a result of my philosophy, I wasn’t even upset about Hitler. I was willing to go to war to knock him off, but I didn’t hate him.” How did all this work out for Ellis in real life? There shall be no easy answers. Ellis did not fight in World War II. Ellis was a Jew.

And so we become more aware. Does increased awareness intensify empathy? Or does it decrease empathy? Of course, that depends upon the perspectives of those potentially offering empathy. Are we aiming for empathy by seeing through the eyes of the innocent Hitler or Stalin? Or do we aim for empathy through the eyes of the absolutely amoral Hitler or Stalin? Or do we somehow try to keep both perspectives in mind, creating a semi-mathematical mean of perspectives?

Whom do we forgive and why? Whom do we forgive last in almost all cases? Ourselves. Everyone has fascist moments; if not, fascism would never have become possible. In such moments, we perpetuate our worst acts and usually without much conscience involved. Obviously, we absorb our degree of conscience through parents or guardians but also later by the media, which perpetuates an ethical system lacking any ethics at all…for the media. We, however, are constantly reminded of our responsibilities while simultaneously being told the self comes first and above all else. What a strange society, with vertical and horizontal fields of ethics and power that cannot be mapped or otherwise depicted. We the Narcissistic Puritans endlessly chastise ourselves and everyone else, except, of course, when we’re not providing fodder to others chastising us. Empathy becomes a wicked thicket.

None of these points can be squared to easy solutions, but this much can be stated with uncertain certainty: Empathy is conditioned and conditional until awareness exposes the extent to which we’re willing to extend our empathy beyond its previous limits. What we do with this awareness, and how we spend our empathy, cannot be proven as beneficial in every case. Putting aside historical figures and considering only those we encounter in daily life, how much empathy can we afford to spend on those so self-convinced that they don’t even convince themselves and so never stop trying to do so? Only when forced to repetitively encounter such people (such as the workplace) do we benefit from extending empathy towards them. We can remain neutral in judgment; to go beyond that point is to deplete the natural resource of empathy.

Awareness may lead to increased empathy, but empathy, when it proves a fool’s errand, does so only after the fact and too late for retraction. We may aim for universal other-awareness, as Ellis proposes, but everyday life opposes the infinite, constantly pushing us back towards our finite lives that can never become wholly rational. We cannot escape this dilemma, but we can mitigate its tensions. Learn and learn again, all lessons to be repeated.

My father died on January 13th, 2007, which would have been my parents’ 56th wedding anniversary.  Even in the midst of her grief, my mother remarked that it was the only gift he’d ever given her in all their years of marriage.  Sounds horrible but that was the nature of their relationship and, frankly, it was an accurate statement.  It was also more of a relationship than he shared with me.  We were never as close as I had hoped as a child, needed as a teen, pondered as man or wished for as a father myself but I didn’t hate him.  I would have had to know him to hate him and he kept us all at a safe enough distance that there was little chance of that.

His name was Nicholas, though his birth certificate said “Nicolai” – a point that was often mocked but never actually addressed.  He was the youngest of thirteen children,  thankfully the product of two different women who had chosen to marry his father.  My grandfather died long before I was thought of and I knew little about him aside from the rumor that he was a man with a temper who had little to do with his children.  And that I supposedly have his eyes.  His youngest offspring was coddled mercilessly by his mother, though, and later showed noticeable artistic talents both in sketching and as a clothier (a skill that served him well when, in the depths of poverty, he literally made my mother’s and siblings’ clothes from fabric obtained from the Salvation Army).  His brothers, in contrast, were all supposedly bitterly competitive and perpetually in-fighting, later exhibiting great psychotic tendencies.  Of the entire clan, I only met his half-sister, married to my Uncle Tony, and “Uncle Frank”, whose claim to family fame was that he lost his first wife.  Literally.  He one day told their pre-teen son, “Your mother ain’t here anymore,” before shipping him off to live with a series of other relatives.  Given that Frank seemed to have an endless supply of fifty-gallon drums in his yard and sailed a lot, we sort of did the math and never brought it up.

There were – and will remain – many things unaddressed about that side of the family.

In any case, Nick joined the navy right out of high school and served in the Pacific during the second world war.  Although his official occupation was “pharmacist’s mate”, his actual duties included the unenviable job of pulling what was left of pilots, sometimes burning, from their shot up planes in the brief window between the time they stopped skidding and the time their fuel tanks went up.  I did not know this as a boy and took his near debilitating fear of flying to be still another sign of his weakness.

After the war, he returned to the states where he married a nice Irish girl – alienating his family – and was accepted into a reputable school for commercial artists.  Unfortunately, both he and the nice Irish girl were Catholic and they soon found themselves in a family way.  School would have to wait.  Then they had another.  And another.  School would have to go.  Luckily, his garment making skills impressed a local tailor with connections into the fashion world and my father was offered an apprenticeship with intimations of bigger things.  It would be unbelievably tight – almost impossible – with three kids but, if they tightened the family belt for a few years, it might be an investment worth making.

Then they got pregnant with my sister.  And my father gave up hoping.  He took a job as a “floor walker” at a department store and that’s where he stayed until the company went out of business two years before he was due to retire.  Thirteen years after conceiving my sister, they had me.  By then, my father was a sullen, withdrawn, passive-aggressive, pedantic, chain-smoking borderline alcoholic with few friends to speak of and no social life.  He walked me to school until about second grade, when I apparently (I have no recollection of this – I was seven) told him he “needed to make friends his own age”.  He never walked me to school again.

That was our relationship for almost two decades.  He and my mother moved out of our rental apartment when I was seventeen, leaving me to fend for myself so they could finally buy their own place in Florida, a small condo in an “adult community”.  They were snowbirds at first, coming back up in the summertime, disrupting my life and moving back in for a few months before abandoning me again. It was during this time that the congestive heart failure which would take over fifteen years to kill him by degrees announced its arrival with a sudden heart attack.  I remember how grey his skin became and how the sweat beaded on his bald crown.  When he was finally released, he seemed bent on passive-aggressive self-destruction. Dying to make my family worry about him, well, dying.

My mother usually answered the phone when I would call but, on occasion, he would happen to get to it first.  On hearing my greeting, he would usually say, “Oh!  Hello, Andrew.  Let me get your mother.”  And that would be that.  Rarer still would be the times he was home alone, in which case he would tell me where my mother was – with implications that whatever task she was on was frivolous and wasteful – and that he’d let her know I called.  She hardly ever got the message.  Over the years, we spoke more, though only about current events or when he wanted to criticize my mother and only when I initiated the contact.  At least it was communication.  I don’t ever recall hearing him tell me he was proud of me or that he loved me.  In fairness, I also can’t say I ever recall telling him, either.

He was a rail-thin man in my youth but, between his endless medications and restricted activity, ballooned outrageously in short order.  The closer he got to the end, the worse the bloating became.  His legs swelled up horribly and he suffered from gout.  Walking anywhere was exceptionally difficult.  Travel soon became impossible.  My mother had to call 9-1-1 so often that he was on first-name basis with the ambulance crews and the ER staff.  The orderlies joked about “having his room ready” and once put up a fake sign, renaming the hospital wing after him.

I brought my first-born child to him since flying had been out of the question for years by the time she arrived.  I am not a “manly man” but I remember – with a little surprise – a particular outburst I had at my siblings.  He was fighting to stand on his own feet just to look at the babe and I asked if he wanted to hold her.  He shook his head almost sheepishly and my siblings – older siblings, I might add – let forth a chorus of “Oh, no! He’ll drop her! He’s not strong enough anymore.”  And, without warning even to myself, I turned on them fiercely and positively bellowed, “He is a goddamned man and he can hold his fucking granddaughter if he wants to!!”

And he did.  And he did not drop her.  And he held her for a full minute, cooing at her before he grew tired and asked me to take her back.  Then he sat down of his own accord.  He lasted another two years or so after that, slowly wasting away.  I remember flying down to take care of him towards the end (my siblings, living only two hours away, refused to do so), helping him use the bathroom, showering.  How frail he was.  How his skin seemed to hang on his bones like wet paper.  How that damnable pacemaker bulged out from beneath that parchment like a Christmas gift from Hell, daring you to see what was inside.

On my last birthday, of all days, I was going through a box of “deal with it later” papers and stumbled across a sympathy card into which I had stuck photos taken of him in his last hours.  He was already a skeleton.  Cadaverous.  One eye was shut, the other lid partially open, cheeks gaunt and sunken.  All I could think was, “My God – he looks like Tutankhamen.”  This is the lasting memory I have of my father.

I often find myself missing him but then chide myself for the sentiment.  I missed him when he was still alive so what’s the difference?  He’s simply gotten the distance he sought while he walked among us.  Hopefully, he’s also gotten the peace he always seemed to be missing.  I can’t say that I ever knew him but I understand him a lot more, now that I’m a father.  He taught me a lot about that job – mostly as an example of what not to do but that’s still valuable.  I have often started down a bad road and thought, “This is what he was feeling.  This is why he broke my heart.”  And then backtracked, corrected my course and made the right decision for my children.

I am much more like him than I am comfortable admitting to myself but, for all my bitching, my kids are my life.  I hug them often, tell them I’m proud of them regularly and that I love them to an embarrassing degree.  I can be a cold, clinical and sometimes vicious man but I try desperately to choke it down around them and to be mindful of how my words and actions could wound a tiny soul.  They will never wonder how I felt about them.  They will never question my pride in them.  They will never be lacking my support or encouragement.

I did not “know my father”, much as I wished to, but there was, somewhat in my life, a man named Nicholas who tried his best to do the right things, who had many faults, shortcomings and insecurities but who, in his odd, detached way, loved me.  And I loved this man back as much as he would allow.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad.  We’ll do better next time.