Dismay at a Lack of Empathy

I’m behind on work, so I don’t have much time to post today. I did, however, want to step in to just offer one observation on something tangentially related to the [points wildly at everything that’s happened in the past year or more] that we’ve all been going through.

Like many of you, I’ve been shocked by much of what we’ve undergone as a country. COVID, Black Lives Matter protests, insurrection, quarantines, and more. In many ways, I feel like I’ve been walking through one long gauntlet of events that in any other year would have been considered THE defining event of the year, except they’ve all been rolled into one in a way that makes them all feel like par for the course.

And so I think it makes sense that I’m struggling. Struggling to keep a positive outlook. Struggling to help my children get through all of this and still stay sane. (Remember how horrid middle school was? Now think about trying to do it in 2020. My middle school years were a cake walk in comparison.) Struggling to keep my creative writing going. Struggling to maintain my friendships even during social distancing.

I’m trying to keep in mind that everyone in the country (and the world) is struggling as well, but there is one area where I’m particularly disappointed in what I see as a shortfall in far more people than I would have thought heading into all this.

It feels to me like many people have a severe lack of empathy. I don’t know any other way to put it. People who are looking at the almost 1.9 million people who have died of COVID this year (370,000 in the US alone) and dismiss them. Who look at the hurt so many people of color were (and are) feeling earlier this year, and dismiss the protests or condemn them. Who watched the insurrection at the Capitol yesterday and say that it’s no big deal and being overblown.

Because as upsetting as all of this has been to me, the gaslighting attitude that’s been pointed at me by some has only made it worse. The way some will casually shrug it off and tell me I’m overreacting, or worse yet, dismiss it with some pithy saying.

I understand many of these events have had political undertones, and that there are multiple ways to view them. I genuinely try to understand people who disagree with me on any number of topics, and I try to see things from their point of view. I’ll admit to being worn down to the point that my tolerance for this attitude has gotten much, much shorter lately. But that doesn’t mean I don’t get upset anymore when people continue to take that approach, whether it’s with me or my friends.

Yesterday was traumatic for me, even as far away from the events as I was. It was likely the same for many of you. And the one thing we don’t need in that situation is to have someone come by and tell us we’re wrong for feeling upset. If a child falls and scrapes a knee, do you comfort the child, or tell them there are plenty of people dying of cancer, so they should really suck it up?

I don’t know who my audience for this post is. The people who already feel what I’ve been going through already know all about it, and the people who have been casually dismissing all that pain seem to be past the point of caring. I always thought “being a kind person” was a pretty low bar. It doesn’t really cost me anything other than discomfort now and then. Sort of like putting on a mask when I’m out in public. It’s not a big reach. And I realize that we all have different capacities for kindness, and troubling times can use up those capacities much more quickly.

But I hadn’t expected them to wear out as fast as they did.

So maybe the next time someone is expressing how upset or hurt they are on social media, or how shocked or disappointed, if you’re tempted to speak up, ask a few simple questions:

  1. Do I know this person well enough so that my words would really be helpful?
  2. Is what I’m about to say really going to help them, or is it only going to antagonize them?
  3. Am I posting to help them feel better, or to help myself feel better?

Almost all of the time, if the answer to either of the first two questions is no, then you shouldn’t post anything at all. If the answer to the third is yes, then ask yourself how good a friend or contact you are with that person to begin with.

This is one case where “literally saying nothing at all” is free, and it would actively help the other person far more than any one liner you’ve cooked up in the last five seconds. It might be about a topic you’re passionate about. It might be something you’re convinced you’re right on. But trying to engage people when they’re upset by leading with the argument that they’re actually not upset (or upset for false reasons) is far worse than just keeping your comment to yourself.

And that’s all I have to say about that.

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