Tag Archives: Empathy

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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Picking & Choosing Our Tragedies

21 Apr

World travel and communications recorded on Twitter

(Image by Eric Fischer used under CC license via)

 

What a week.  A suicide bomber in Pakistan killed four people.  A fertilizer plant explosion in Texas killed at least fourteen people.  Sixteen people died in a goldmine collapse in Ghana.  President Obama and members of the U.S. Senate were sent letters laced with poison.  A journalist in Mexico was assassinated, presumably by agents of the drug wars.  At least 65 people died in terrorist attacks in Iraq.  More than 150 people just died in an earthquake in Szechuan.  And after two young women and a little boy were murdered by bombs at the Boston Marathon, it felt surreal if not uncomfortable to see my last post about America’s inexperience with bombs at home emblazoned across the blog.  But what to say? 

For most of the week, we had no trace of a motive for the Boston bombing.  And now that one suspect of Chechen origin is dead and his brother is in custody, we still don’t have anything we could officially call a reason.  Polemicists on the right and left are using the event as “evidence” for the necessity of their own political agendas, arguing that we should have used drones, or that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev should face a military trial, or that we need more surveillance cameras everywhere, or that the two suspects seem more like the psychotic teens of Columbine than terrorist operatives.  As John Dickerson observed in Slate yesterday:

We need more restraint and less wild guessing. Free-flowing debate in the search for meaning is a part of these moments and a part of the human condition, but … In these fast-moving times when the only thing that is certain is that the first piece of news has repeatedly been wrong, perhaps those lawmakers and pundits who want to be part of the final conversation should (paraphrasing Mike Monteiro) follow the Quaker rule: Be meaningful or be quiet. 

Of course, we all like to think ourselves meaningful.  But so far, with no official motive, the only irrefutable point any politician has made thusfar came from the Ambassador from the Czech Republic, who urged the media to note that Czechs and Chechens belong to two different countries located over a thousand miles apart.

Distance and borders matter, obviously, since none of us are equally horrified by every single one of this week’s tragedies.  But why?  I had friends in the Boston area who were stuck at home during Friday’s lockdown.  (Two were hoping to be allowed out in time for them to make it to the annual birthday celebration of their late brother Bill, whom I wrote about at this time last year in a post on grief.)  But I’ll hazard to guess that most of those glued to the news updates from Boston did not have loved ones there.  The story dominated the headlines across the ocean in Germany, in France, in the U.K.  Everyone seemed to be watching. 

The simplest reason for this is that people are naturally empathic, upset to see others upset and, in the words of the Czech ambassador, “It was a stark reminder of the fact that any of us could be a victim of senseless violence anywhere at any moment.”  But dead people in Pakistan and Iraq no longer serve as reminders of that fact.  They instead represent our ability to compartmentalize, to exile certain tragedies to a semi-numb region of the mind, either because they seem too frequent for us to commit to or because we want to believe there is some crucial difference between Us and Them, protecting us from their fate.  It’s not malicious of us to compartmentalize in this way—to tear up upon sight of the beautiful little boy in Boston while not even checking to see if any of the victims in Iraq were children—but it’s not fair either. 

And so I stared down my last post about World War II bombs, feeling inexplicably uncomfortable, wondering whether it was callous of me to not say anything about the tragedies going on in my old home country, yet knowing World War II would never have happened had my new home country not embraced a dangerous idea of what makes a country “home.”  Borders are always bizarre.  In a digital age, distance is all in the mind.  I’ll never be able to rationally explain why some things feel “close to home” and others don’t.   I’ll always care more about the safety of those I know personally than those I don’t, but I’ll never be completely comfortable with this fact because ignoring our common humanity is what builds borders and facilitates cruelty.  I’ll always tear up if you show me a picture of an innocent victim.  I’ll always try to remember to ask why we are shown pictures of some victims, and not others. 

Or, as a friend in Boston observed during the lockdown, “It is so hard to be inside on this gorgeous, beautiful spring day.  Minor problem, but reminds me how lucky we are most of the time to feel safe outside our homes.”