We Claim To Be Empathetic, But We Look Only For Ourselves In Tragedy

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Let's quit with US versus THEM altogether. What about WE?

"I talk about my cat so I can relate to my friends with kids."

This essay started here. A friend of a friend's comment on Facebook, meant as a joke. And yet, my first thought was, Why isn't it OK if you DON'T relate?

Why are parents bothered by people who remain child-free, and vice versa? Why do we let our personal choices prevent us from connecting? Why do we claim we're citizens of the world but only pay attention to a sliver of that world?

Relating  and more specifically, not knowing how  was what it kept coming back to.

The question was niggling at me when the attacks in Paris happened, followed by the subsequent Facebook profile flags, the backlash to those, and the questions about why we paid such singular attention to Paris (some of it even from me). "What about Beirut?" "What about Baghdad?"

What about every other atrocity every other place? And why are you all making me so mad? And why am I making me so mad?

We can blame the media all we want, but we as the audience are the problem. We paid more attention to Paris because we "get" Paris. We relate. For all the stereotypes of rude French people, we like it and we get it and we see ourselves in it. And so we hurt for it in a way we don't, for the places we don't go, the people and ways we don't know from a thousand movies.

It comes down to this: In all our years as a species, we haven't yet shaken our need to form tribes. We struggle (some of us) to evolve into creatures who can embrace different colors, loves, looks, beliefs, ways of child-rearing. 

But it all boils down to some inability we have to really absorb a situation to care if we can't answer the question: "Does it relate TO ME?"

It seems harmless, maybe we even think intelligent, when we read a book or watch a movie and say, "You know, I just couldn't relate to X because Y." We choose Taylor Swift over Kanye West because one is "like us," and we deem the other an assh*le. 

But it becomes its own wall to our experiences  or potential for them. It breeds fear. It keeps us quite literally as some of us talk about closing our doors to Syrian refugees from opening our arms to the not-just-like-us.

We are phoning it in as human beings when we don't rise to the challenge of not relating but still comprehending, still caring, still trying to get it. It's definitely affected our political process in the United States, as we expect candidates to do tricks to show how relatable they are. (The whole "Would I have a beer with this person?" test.)

But when I see candidates flipping pancakes and pretending to bowl, I relate only to seeing someone do something they really don't want to do. It's not enlightening or bringing me to greater understanding. I certainly don't think I should vote for someone because they can bake a cookie or eat a large, messy sandwich the way I would.

And this is admittedly simplistic, but relating is the main problem with religion (and I say this as someone who's always been religion-resistant, ever since Saturday CCD classes): Not that we have religion — but that we take our own beliefs so deeply to heart, that we tune out beliefs that don't jibe or that we don't understand.

Instead, shouldn't we say, "I don't relate to the way you believe or what you believe, but I understand your need for doing so"?

(This would be like kids on my son's school playground jumping him because he wore a Paw Patrol shirt on the same day everyone else was rocking Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And yes, I compared your deeply-held religious beliefs to kids' cartoon shows, but to kids cartoons are religion.)

It's the crux of all that fighting over Black Lives Matter (do we remember that or has too much horrible stuff happened to go back that far?): No one posting that hashtag was saying that all lives don't matter, but there's a problem with how we pay attention and who gets cared for and why and when.

It explains why something like Sandy Hook, admittedly more anomalous than another shooting in Chicago's gang-ridden communities, gets so much coverage. But 318 people were shot on Halloween in Chicago. That should be a big deal. It should hurt us and find us even at our most sheltered. No matter how little we "get" what it is to live in the shadow of the city's projects, we should get that no one should have to live like that.

We can claim to be open-minded, empathetic, not racist, not nationalistic, not anything less than awesome all we want but even at our best a lot of us still look for ourselves in every tragedy. In every book we read and show we watch. In every everything.

We're not challenging ourselves. We're not making an effort. We can take to Facebook to share a mantra about being kind because everyone is facing their own special struggle, but we're window-shopping for other people's shoes instead of trying to walk in them.

Granted, I'm not saying I want to take afternoon tea with White Power Sally. But I'm curious to know how she got that way. And I'm not saying I'm reaching out hands of peace to everyone I disagree with, either. My first instinct is to rage and be angry and engage in wars of words with whomever is listening (or often not).

I get angry all the time. But is that helping? It doesn't seem to be. Not relating is so often sound and fury, signifying nothing. And improving nothing.

If I'm going to be angry, I want to be angry for every screwed-over, left-out and kicked-down person who deserves for me to be angry on their behalf  not just the ones whose struggles come closest to being like mine.

Growing up, I knew I was lucky. Maybe not from the richest place, maybe a public school kid who worked at the mall and had no grand plans for being a big deal. But lucky.

I remember tests rolling around and my friends panicking, and I remember thinking and saying (to no one but myself because I wasn't quite confident in this idea), "Look, through circumstances and fate and birth and whatever, we're extremely lucky. Most things we face aren't a matter of life and death, so we shouldn't act like they are." (I probably scribbled it down in more punk rock teenage language but the sentiment was the same.)

I still go by that mantra and know I'm lucky, my kids are lucky. But now it means even more, as I learn more and more how many people face things daily that ARE matters of life and death — more than I ever imagined as a relatively sheltered 16-year-old.

It's impossible to know every person's pain, or to even fathom the fear with which some people have to live their lives. But we have to TRY, right? I can't limit my attention to a missing blonde girl in Aruba or a school shooting in Connecticut. That's lazy.

I don't want to only feel things with force when I can say about them, "It could happen to me," or, "It could happen here," or, "It could happen to us." I want to be sucker-punched by feelings because it happens to THEM. Whoever "them" is.

In fact, let's quit with US versus THEM altogether. What about WE?

Be part of the WE. Because not-relating isn't just about how we view others, either. It's a great way to talk ourselves out of trying things, to keep ourselves in the dark and to not evolve. It's how we inculcate fear and think, "I can't do this because I'm not like THEM."

(For a great example of this, listen to the This American Life story, "Three Miles," in which an exceptional public school student from the Bronx loses a scholarship to an elite college and then talks herself out of even trying for college because she starts to see herself as not part of that world.)

We're not going to solve anything by sticking to our corners, waiting to relate.

We need to be curious, to seek to understand.

Cat people need to reach out to kid people.

Kid people need to reach out to cat people.

Small steps: Maybe next time someone launches into a story and you're thinking, Oh god, why do they think I want to hear about this? don't tune out and wait for your turn to talk or escape.

Ask a question. Listen. Don't judge, discover. Even in anger, be open. Then try to do one better. Whatever better is. 

I'm still trying to figure it out, too.



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