Tuesday, November 1, 2016

How Empathy Works for Me

Yesterday I read this in the Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/early-lead/wp/2016/10/31/a-black-autistic-teen-got-lost-running-a-5k-then-assaulted-by-a-man-who-feared-getting-mugged/

(Warning for the usual sort of non-thinking, inherently-ableist reporting.)

To summarize the story, Chase, a black, mostly non-verbal autistic teen, was assaulted by a much larger white man while running a marathon with his team. His family is having difficulty getting justice for him.

Sadly, this is a fairly common sort of story in America. And I felt the usual feelings about it. Outrage and disgust at the obvious racism that provoked the attack. Outrage and disgust that justice wasn't being served. A cynical relief that at least the poor boy wasn't shot, as so many black and/or disabled people have been.

And then I got to the rest of the story.

Chase has refused to run since this happened. It was formerly his favorite thing. It brought him joy, and a place in a community.

That's when I started to cry. Because I know this. I know what it's like to have nasty people ruin something you love. Sometimes it feels like that's my whole life now. Just one big reaction to trauma.

So I cried more for Chase than I have for people who've actually been killed. Because I know what he's going through.

I was remembering something that happened after 9/11. I was 8 months pregnant when it happened, and I posted somewhere online about how upset I was for the women who were near term or in labor in New York -- how terrifying it must be in the midst of all the chaos and loss of essential services and such. And I got a response so sarcastic I could barely parse it, but I think the message was it was disgusting that I was thinking about that instead of the loss of lives.

Well, the two aren't mutually exclusive. Of course I was horrified and saddened for the people who died, and the people who lost loved ones. (We didn't know for awhile about the people sickened by the smoke inhalation.) I felt a great deal of sympathy for them. But my most immediate empathy went to the people who were experiencing something like I was experiencing.

Similarly, when Katrina happened while I was the mother of a young child, my thoughts were largely with other mothers. I gave money for diapers for the refugees, as well as for drinking water.

Is this weird? Or bad? Or is it unreasonable of people to expect true empathy for everyone in every situation? How much can anyone stand to empathize when there's so much suffering in the world?