A poignant and insightful Wait But Why piece on that particularly kind of empathy you feel for someone who’s put a lot of effort into something that is ultimately heart-breakingly disappointing, perhaps even more for you, the witness, than it is for them.
My father once told me a mundane little anecdote from his youth. It involved his father—my late grandfather—and one of the happiest and most loving people I’ve ever known.
One weekend day, my grandfather went to the store and brought a new board game home for the family: Clue.
He excitedly asked my father and his sister (who were 7 and 9 at the time) if they wanted to play. They did. They joined him at the kitchen table as he opened up the game, read the instructions and explained to them how to play, divided up the cards and put all the pieces where they go.
Just as they were about to start, the doorbell rang. It was the neighbor kids, who said they were on their way outside to play some outdoor game they all used to play. Without a second thought, my dad and aunt jumped up from their seats and left with their friends.
A few hours later, they came back to the house. The game had been put back in the closet.
At the time, my dad didn’t think much of it—pretty normal day in their lives. But later on, he found himself remembering that day, and he always felt bad about it. He pictured his father sitting there at the table, now alone, with all the cards and pieces laid out. He pictured him waiting for a little while before accepting that it wasn’t gonna happen today, then collecting all the pieces and cards he had laid out, putting them back in the box, and putting the box back in the closet.
Pretty random story for my dad to tell me, right? The reason he did was because it was part of a conversation where I was trying to articulate a certain thing I suffer from, which is feeling incredibly bad for certain people in certain situations—situations in which the person I feel bad for was probably barely affected by what happened. It’s an odd feeling of intense heartbreaking compassion for people who didn’t actually go through anything especially bad.
When I explained this, my dad said, “I know what you’re talking about,” and offered up the Clue story. Devastating. My grandfather had been excited about playing, and he was being such a good, loving dad, and he ended up let down and disappointed. He sat there all by himself with the game board, and finally he put all the cards and pieces back in the box because no, the game wasn’t happening anymore because his kids would rather play with their friends than him.
My grandfather fought in World War II. He probably lost friends. He probably shot people. He might have been shot himself, who knows. But the image of him quietly putting all the Clue pieces back in the box? That’s not fucking okay. And now, thanks to my dad sharing this memory, I live every day haunted by this image: