Tag Archives: Suffering

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.

What Makes You So Special?

13 Oct

Leg-formsDisney World is changing its policy for disabled customers this week since it’s come to light that many families have been hiring disabled people to help them cut to the front of the lines.  Like stealing disabled parking spaces, this kind of cheating requires a brazen combination of laziness and self-righteousness.  What kind of family believes that the agony they experience waiting in line is comparable to what a disabled customer experiences?  

MSN reports, “Stories of wealthy families hiring disabled tour guides to pose as family members have drawn national attention and scorn. But the more common abuse is subtler: people faking hard-to-verify handicaps such as heart murmurs, back spasms or claustrophobia… ”

The news broke the very same day that I had my first meeting with an adviser here in Berlin to explore the options available to me for disabled status. 

“It’s important not to lie,” he said bluntly.  “Don’t exaggerate your pain, but don’t feign bravery, either.” 

Indeed, ego-driven dishonesty can go either way.  Some lie and cause themselves unnecessary discomfort all for the sake of their own pride, while others lie and take advantage of assistance all for the sake of garnering special attention.  It creates a burden for genuinely disabled people who must convince cynics that their medical conditions are bona fide, but not necessarily tragic.     

I don’t know what level of disabled status I currently qualify for.  In elementary school, I took a specialized phys ed class and I was the only kid who was allowed to sit in a chair instead of on the floor during story-time to avoid distracting back pain.  Yet on both occasions that my family took me to Disney World, I managed the hour-long waits in line without assistance.  But I couldn’t manage that today.  Then again, I have good days and bad.  Should I mention all this on my application, or does it sound like I’m making things up?

Determining disability is to determine whether your suffering—which is always unique and important to you—is in fact unique to your peer group.  Decades of being designated as different cause many disabled people to balk at the idea of being given special treatment. (As I’ll explore next week, many in the dwarf community go so far as to insist that dwarfism isn’t a disability.)  Yet those willing to hire a disabled person for a day at Disney World appear to rebel against the idea of not being given special treatment.

I hesitate to delve into the topic of lying and whining because, in far too many parts of the world, victims of horrific suffering are readily silenced by being dismissed as liars and whiners.  To a heartless person, anyone’s complaint qualifies as whining, except his own.  In an intolerant society, “Suck it up!” is barked at anyone who ever sheds a tear or speaks up about injustice.  The world usually needs more compassion than cynicism.  Given the choice, I’d rather live with too much whining than too much cruelty and abuse. 

But whining abuses compassion.  I don’t believe the majority of cheaters at Disney World deviously set out to fake illness and maliciously steal a disabled child’s spot in line.  In my experience, it’s much more common that people with mundane problems truly believe their difficulties entitle them to exceptional treatment. 

A friend who was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in childhood once said that whenever he tries to explain this to a group of 20-somethings, more often than not a few will start saying, “I think I have that, too!”  This can happen innocently enough: Most of us like to consider new experiences by seeing how they relate back to those we are already familiar with.  And misery sure loves company.  But anyone with clinical OCD knows that this condition is not simply about odd habits that make for charming little anecdotes, or pathologizing our eccentricities so that they cannot be questioned.  In our individualistic LOOK AT ME! culture, there is a fine but crucial line between trying to empathize in order to understand a different experience, and trying to empathize in order to snag a place for ourselves in the spotlight. 

This is not to silence those whose problems are ordinary.  (We all need to vent about the lines at Disney World.)  But false equivalencies can also silence those whose problems are extraordinary.  Being spoiled doesn’t just render us disagreeable – it renders us ignorant.  To relativize all difficulty risks misunderstanding and overlooking the profound effects of true disability, true poverty, true trauma, and true grief.

When middle class college grads complain about being “poor” because they can’t buy as many DVDs as they did when they lived with Mom and Dad, they’re disregarding the poverty line.  When a young woman claims to suffer from PTSD after being pickpocketed, she’s stretching the definition of the word into meaninglessness.  When breaking up with a boyfriend or losing a pet is described with the same superlative words we use to describe battling cancer or losing a child, we overlook the difference between the kind of pain no one should have to endure and the kind of pain everyone should expect.  Blunt comparisons—“I know exactly what you’re going through!”—downplay severity and dramatize the mundane, impeding rather than spreading awareness. 

In applying for disabled status, I will find out from an objective source just how disabled I am.  If my weekly pain, fatigue and weakness qualify as Severe or Moderate, then I’ll swallow any pride I have about wanting to appear stronger and accept it.  If my difficulties are judged to be Mild, then I’ll discard any selfish wishes I have about the benefits of Severe status and accept it.  I do feel substantially exceptional when I’m the only one in a crowd of friends who absolutely must sit down after a 20-minute walk.  But other experiences make these inconveniences seem not only minor but trivial.

I lived in a pediatric rehabilitation hospital for five months when I was 11 years-old and undergoing my first limb-lengthening procedure.  On my first day in group therapy, the patients introduced themselves to me and explained why they were there. 

The first guy had a degenerative nerve disorder that was life-threatening.  “I was talking about it with my dad and he told me, ‘I wish you’d never been born.’  Thanks, Dad.”

The second kid had been shot in the hip and paralyzed in a gang war. 

The third guy was quadriplegic.  “I’m actually ready to be discharged, but I’m having a hard time finding my own apartment with a caregiver to live with me.  My mom has decided she doesn’t want to take care of me round the clock.”

Then a teenage girl talked about her upcoming discharge.  The room erupted into congratulations until she began to choke back tears.  “I’m being discharged because the treatments aren’t working.  At this point, they said they can’t even tell me if I’m going to live to see tomorrow.” 

Then it was my turn to introduce myself.  “Um, I’m having my legs lengthened so that I can be taller.” 

I’m sure this was met with courtesy and active listening, but at that moment I felt I deserved nothing but crickets.  That night in my hospital room, I tossed and turned, wondering if she would live to see the next day.

My fellow patients in group were ultimately sympathetic to any struggles I needed to discuss.  What they taught me above all else is that, as my advisor said, it’s important not to lie.  Tell the truth, and be aware of where your reality lies in relation to others.  Fight against the stigma surrounding disability, poverty, trauma, and grief.  And don’t claim to know the unique despair experienced by those who live it.   If you claim to already know, you’ll miss what they have to teach you about the world you live in. 

Like why someone would really need to cut in line.