How To Do Empathy Wrong

23 Nov

sssssh(Image by Valentina Cinelli used under Creative Commons license via)

Have you ever had someone say to you, “I know exactly what you’re going through!” only to have them then rip into a monologue that proves they have no idea what you’re going through?

SarahKat Keezing Gay, whose newborn son needed a heart transplant, has had plenty of experiences with this:

One of my favorites has always been people comparing children’s issues with those of anything that isn’t a child. “Oh, I know just what it’s like to have a newborn. My cat wakes me up all the time!” or “Having kids is expensive, sure, but it’s nothing like having a horse.”

With Hud’s medical stuff, most of the comparisons were to really old people with totally different, usually terminal conditions. “I know just what it feels like to wait for a baby to get a heart transplant. My 85-year old great-uncle had liver disease, and waiting for his transplant was so hard on my family!” … This was particularly chafing when entangled with glaring inaccuracies, such as: “He’s sick? When my grandma went through chemo, she looked terrible, so he must be taking lots of herbal supplements to stop the hair loss and everything, right?”

She is hardly the first survivor of trauma who has had to deal with blunt comparisons that are ultimately unhelpful. In college, I witnessed a trust fund kid compare his worries about paying for a new car to a trailer park kid’s worries about paying for his course books: “I hear ya, bro – I’m struggling, too!”

The best way to get along with the rest of the world is to try to understand it. And most understanding is achieved by comparing the unknown to that which we already know. But there is an unproductive tendency in the it’s-a-small-world-after-all mindset to relativize all hardship to the point of equating all hardship. Twilight star Kristen Stewart told interviewers that unwanted paparazzi photos made her feel “raped.” Millionaire businessman David Harding pronounced the words “geek” and “nerd” to be “as insulting as n*****.” Famed divorcée Elizabeth Gilbert of the Eat, Pray, Love franchise declared that divorce can be more anxiety-inducing than the death of a child, asserting this in a book devoted to gushing about the joys of her new-found love. I don’t know Gilbert or Harding or Stewart personally, so it would be presumptuous to conclude that they must simply be naïve and have no idea what trauma or death threats or bereavement feel like. But their utterances are false equivalencies that alienate more people than they enlighten.

In the recent words of NPR’s Annalisa Quinn: “ ‘We’re all the same on the inside!’ is not that far from ‘Everyone is like me!’ which is not that far from ‘My perspective is universal!’ ” The phrase I know exactly what you’re going through, while sometimes well-intentioned, can ultimately be silencing because it puts the listener in the awkward position of having to choose between keeping quiet and trying to find a gracious way to say, “No, you don’t know what I’m going through.” Saying such a thing can come off as angry and self-involved, so most polite people opt instead to hold their tongues, sparing the other person their upset but also an opportunity to be taken out of their comfort zone and learn about an experience they’ve never had.

In his adorable piece “How To Be Polite,” Paul Ford writes that the fastest way to make a friend as an adult is to ask them what they do for a living and—no matter what their job is—react by saying, “Wow. That sounds hard.” The last time he used this line he was talking to a woman whose job it was to pick out jewelry for celebrities.

It’s a sure-fire way to a person’s heart because we all think we work really hard. We all think we have had trials and tribulations. The blues would never have broken out of the Mississippi Delta if we didn’t. But while our lives are all equally important, they are not equally painful:

Everyone on earth is privileged in some way, but not everyone has experienced severe pain.  Arguing with family, enduring rejection in love, searching for a lucrative and fulfilling job, dealing with the bodily break-down that comes with the onset of age – it is all cause for pain. The pain is both valid and common, which is why there is a plethora of books and films and songs about these experiences. And which is why we expect such pain from life and why it is fair of others to expect us to learn how to deal with it. It is substantial, but it is not severe.

Those who experience severe pain are, thankfully, becoming a minority as our society becomes ever safer and healthier, with rates of life-threatening illness and violence lower than they have ever been in human history. But misery loves company, and severe pain brings on not only profound stress but great loneliness. That’s why support groups exist. Having friends who try to understand, not because they see a chance to tell their own story but because your happiness genuinely matters to them, is lovely. Their efforts signify bravery. But they can never offer the unique comfort of connection that blooms from really knowing what you’re going through.

This was clear when I recently spent an evening at a dinner table where I was the only one who did not have a parent who had died or disowned me. It is clear whenever I read Keezing Gay’s accounts of her baby’s transplant, which moves me to tears every single time, all of them merging to constitute but a drop in the ocean of what her family went through.

The middle-aged mother of a deceased teenager said to me months after her death, “Our friends in Utah got the wrong news and thought for a while that it had been me. That I was the one who died. And I immediately thought when I heard that, Why couldn’t it have been me?  I had a good life.  My life was good until this moment.”

My life was good until this moment.

Unlike mundane pain, severe pain so often brings perspective. Of course, whether or not it does ultimately depends upon the wisdom and strength of the individual. This fact is lost on those who uphold the long tradition of viewing severe pain as a beauty mark worth yearning for because it supposedly imbues the sufferer with automatic heroism. This tradition pervades many circles, though most often those of the young and artsy navel-gazers.

Wes Anderson, who may be our generation’s king of the artsy navel-gazers, captured this problem surprisingly well in Moonrise Kingdom. The scene involves two pre-teens: Suzy the Outcast, who is angry about her mother’s infidelity and often gets into fights at school, and Sam the Oddball Orphan, who has been bounced around from foster family to foster family before being bullied at camp.

She tells him dreamily, “I always wished I was an orphan. Most of my favorite characters are. I think your lives are more special.”

Her sweetheart pauses and narrows his eyes. “I love you, but you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Because it’s not empathy when it’s all about you.  As Nigerian feminist Spectra wrote in her critique of American Mindy Budgor’s white savior complex gone wild: “This isn’t about people ‘staying where they are’ and disengaging from the world. This is about learning to engage with other cultures with some humility, or at least some bloody respect.”

There is no benefit to engaging in Oppression Olympics; i.e., to trying to prove that abused children have it worse than soldiers with PTSD, or that black women have it worse in the U.S. than gay men. But there is a benefit to acknowledging the differences between their experiences as well as the differences between mild, moderate and severe pain. The benefit is true understanding.

Shortly after an uproar over her rape comment, Kristen Stewart apologized for her crudeness. Acknowledging what we don’t know is an indispensable step in the path toward true understanding. The most deeply thoughtful, impressively modest people I know do this all the time. Their frequent deference in combination with their unwavering support proves that there’s a world of a difference between trying to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and assuming you’ve already worn them.

 
*As in all of my posts, the identities of many of the people cited here have been altered to protect their privacy.

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4 Responses to “How To Do Empathy Wrong”

  1. Kjerstin Gould November 23, 2014 at 7:39 pm #

    Wonderful article. I feel compelled to make a correction: Kristen Stewart who made an inappropriate comparison to feeling raped, starred in Twilight – not Hunger Games.

  2. captainglittertoes November 23, 2014 at 9:12 pm #

    I agree, although I don’t think that severe pain’s perspective depends on how strong/wise the sufferer is. Sometimes pain is just painful, and how it affects you is just how it affects you–it’s ok to fall apart, or for it to not really be a learning experience. Thanks for talking about this!

    • Emily Sullivan Sanford November 23, 2014 at 9:56 pm #

      It’s absolutely ok! The reference to perspective, strength and wisdom pertains more to the ability/decision to not take one’s pain out on others. Everyone has weak moments, but many abusers were victims of abuse themselves. Strength and wisdom comes from doing one’s best to beware the risk of this.

      Thanks for your kind words!

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