Most of us have heard the term compassion fatigue which basically means developing an indifference to the appeals of people who are suffering having experienced such appeals frequently. This is a fair and real phenomenon. We have all been there, but, what I am now is experiencing something closer to empathy fatigue. Empathy, as a term and a concept, has got me wrung out, frustrated and, frankly, a little pissed off.
It’s not that I don’t believe in empathy because I do. I have seen it in action, experienced it; know many people who are true empaths and, in many respects, consider myself an empath too. My problem with empathy is, yes, the way it gets tossed around and misunderstood, but, also, its inherent limitations. We hear all the time about a “lack of empathy” but I don’t know anymore. It may not be lacking, it may just be limited, both, in terms of who truly possesses it, and, how far its limits can be stretched and, like all things, they can only be stretched so far.
This struggle with empathy all dates back to my pre-pandemic trip to Florida this past February when, an experience with the seeming limitations, of what is perceived by many as empathy, struck me hard. In my post, “Say All of Their Names”, I relayed the story of being driven to my hotel by a Cuban immigrant who noted the importance of the upcoming U.S. election. While I thought he wanted to remove the current President, particularly because of his immigration policies, he did not. He did not because he appreciates the President’s immigration policies. All of them: The Wall. The Cages. The Bans. Every single aspect of it.
To say I was stunned would be an understatement. I was also disappointed, devastated and, at the bottom of it all, frightened. Frightened that immigrants, members of marginalized communities, would actually be a part of the coalition that would put a man like that back in power for another four long years. Because the man I interacted with was one symptom of many; he was not the whole disease. I could not wrap my mind around it and so I tried to stop thinking about it. But, even after I came back, it wouldn’t leave me. He seemed like a nice man. He displayed empathy toward my experience as a woman in a wheelchair. He seemed kind, gentle and helpful as far as our interactions went. And, to this day, I believe that he can be all of those things, but, why could he extend all of that to me and not detainees, including children, at the border?
To be perfectly honest I, obviously, will never know for sure but I do believe two main factors were at play. The first being, he could see me. I was in his face. I was not an abstraction. To not help me, to display disregard, bordering on cruelty, toward me, would have thrown not just me into chaos but him too. His own self-perception would have developed a crack in the fault line. He could not have looked me in the face, denied me my basic needs and still gone to bed at night, or Church the next day, and believe he upheld his stated values. He also could not have upheld the part of him that holds him as a nice, empathic man as it simply would not have been able to remain intact.
Which leads me to the second factor: he saw something in me worthy of his attempting to relate to and to understand, which is, at least to some extent, what empathy is. Yet for this man, and, undoubtedly many others too, relatability has become, in near totality, what empathy is. He may not have understood me in a real way, what drives me and who I really am, but, there was an element of my experience that he felt he understood, could share in and, ultimately, relate to enough, that he could assist me in the ways I needed.
Yes it was his job, but, it was more than that too. The understanding he believed he had of me allowed him to fulfill the part of himself that is good; a man who helps ladies in wheelchairs who need his help. In his view, I was decent in a way that was worthy of his empathy. I may also have created a buffer against the people out of his sight, who he feels he cannot understand or relate to and who take up a space he can ill-afford. The people who must, in some way, not be as decent him, or, as me, or they would not have ended up in cages in the first place.
Moreover, he’s an American now. Aligned, even remotely, with the man who does the caging. The seat of power. Like everyone else, I have been watching the protests unfold across the United States over the murder of George Floyd and was struck, again like everyone else, by the sizes of the crowds in the various states that are protesting. It’s not just the sizes of the crowds themselves that are striking, but, the sizes of the police and armed forces in the face of those crowds. Those seem tiny, insignificant and, yet, hold all the power because they hold all the might. The tear gas, the rubber bullets, they have it all. And seeing those lopsided dynamics got me to think that is exactly why things, even in the absence of weaponry, don’t change.
They don’t because empathy, in most people, only goes so far. The capacity to be aware of, and sensitive to, almost vicariously, the thoughts and feelings of others without those things being communicated objectively is extremely rare. As I said at the outset, I know true empaths but they are rare birds and make up the tiniest fraction of the 7 billion plus people on the planet. If they made up the whole planet we’d be in great shape but they don’t and so we are not. So, what happens when we can’t understand anothers experience? Knees end up on necks. Human beings end up in cages. There is no bottom.
The police and the military are the embodiments of the inability to truly empathize. They cannot understand the protesters at whom they are firing rubber bullets because they are not really trying to understand them; they are not really listening to or hearing them, even when they scream. Even when they cry out in agony. Even when the shatter windows and light fires. They can’t empathize or understand why people are literally burning their own communities down, particularly in Minnesota, and, so, if they can’t understand it they will not turn empathy on. Instead, they will just shut it all down and have business return to a usual that works for them.
But this time is, I believe, different as far as the protesters are concerned. They are done waiting for empathy and to be understood; that talk is cheap and gets them nowhere. No, they are seeking justice and action that is rooted in compassion and if getting those things means burning communities to the ground that are not worth saving in the first place: so be it. As far as they can tell, there is nothing to save in those places anyway because all that waits for them there is persecution, poverty, incarceration, injustice and, in all likelihood, death.
That is why empathy’s got me kind of pissed off. It has because if we don’t possess the true empathic ability to understand another’s experience, then are all bets off? If that is true we are all deeply and profoundly wrecked and our destruction, of both ourselves and of others, is absolutely inevitable. It doesn’t have to be though if we move our gaze and, instead, train our eyes more toward compassion. Empathy means we sort of stay in our own lane and let whatever thoughts and feelings we can understand come to us. Compassion though involves us going out of our lane to see and to help someone else who may be suffering.
When we are exercising compassion another person doesn’t have to be in our face, we don’t have to see them and we certainly don’t have to, fully, or, even necessarily, closely, understand them. All we really need to understand is that they actually need our help and that there is an actual way we can serve. And our service doesn’t have to be perfect, that cannot stand in the way of the good, our service just has to be. Alive, full, committed. If true empathy and compassion can marry and if we can strengthen our empathy muscle, that is great, but, we don’t have to spend all of our time reaching a perfect point in our understanding in order to start doing. There are moments when we just have to do. When we have to leverage our privilege in the service of others.
Which is not to say compassion fatigue is not real, it most definitely is. Again, even the best among us will reach the limits of their ability to be compassionate. But right now, at this moment we are being called upon to question where we have been directing our compassionate energy. Has it been aimed in the direction of the greatest good? Has it been spent in meaningful and mindful ways? Have we been conscious enough to leverage our compassion and extend it through our actions to those who need it the most? Those who we know have had enough because we see it playing out on our screens now every single day? Those are the questions we need to be asking and, it is from that place, that we need to begin our true doing.
I am realizing now that I spent a lot of time not speaking out about issues of race because I felt I didn’t understand them well enough. I was busy trying to put shoes on my feet that belonged to someone else, and that don’t fit, so that I could try and walk around in them first before trying to actually do something. I was so busy trying to be perfect that I forgot to just do and to do good as best as I could. The truth of the matter is, I don’t understand these issues well enough and I may never understand them well enough, but, that shouldn’t stop me from doing something. It shouldn’t stop any of us.
It shouldn’t stop any of us from listening. It shouldn’t stop any of us from learning and it shouldn’t stop any of us from trying, including trying to understand more and better. We don’t need a depth of understanding that would allow us to take over Black Lives Matter but we need to understand what we don’t know and where we can to look to find out. We especially need to understand where we can be of service. And we need to know all of those things so that we can aim our privilege in the direction of compassion. A direction where we may not always aim perfectly but we will always aim truly.