When you’re too small

The impetus for me writing about the insane double bind I place myself in when contemplating the notion of interacting with the world was the crisis unfolding in Afghanistan. Because I wanted to write about it, but how could I possibly have value to add? I know nothing. And, unlike some world events of recent times, I don’t even feel stirred to anger about it, I just feel very sad. And it feels very far away. And I feel very far removed from it. And there is a gratitude and relief I feel for being so far removed. And there is a powerlessness and ineptitude I feel for being so far removed.

Yet there is also this knowing that it wouldn’t take so very much for me to find myself in a very similar situation to the people trying to flee Kabul. It seems a world away, so very inconceivable, but, really, in my lifetime, it could happen to me, and I’d be a fool not to acknowledge that. And if it did happen to me, what would I want the person on the other side, living in a different world, so far removed from my heartbreak and fear and struggle, to do? I don’t know. I know nothing.

I am just one, tiny, inconsequential being. I am nothing against the systems in place. I exist here, in my room, with very few resources to offer and a very limited idea of how I could offer them. I don’t matter in this. But something that soothes me in these moments, when I feel so entirely dwarfed by the magnitude of an issue, is something I learned when I did non-violent direct action training with Greenpeace many moons ago – the concept of ‘bearing witness’.

At the very least – even if we can’t figure out how to help, or how to heal, or how to change what’s wrong – we all have the power to bear witness.

Bearing witness will change you. It will change the way you move through the world. Bit by bit, it will change the world. But it will also share the load. It will spread the word. It will allow the sufferers to breathe, knowing that they are not solely responsible for carrying the burden of their story. That they don’t need to hold it alone. That you bear it too; as much as you are able.

Sympathy

Recently, I talked about misplaced sympathy. But, actually, I think I have a bit of a problem with even arguably well-placed sympathy. Sympathy, to me, is a crutch for people incapable of empathy. There is a world of difference between “aw, poor dear” and “there, but for the grace of God, go I”. Sympathy is phoning it in. It’s a superficial, and usually judgement-tainted, cop out. It’s an inadvertant diminishment of another person’s humanity. Because it’s more effort for you to think of them as a full and gloriously complicated equal, so you don’t bother trying: You don’t bother trying to imagine what it’s like to be them. You might think about how ‘people’ might feel in their situation. You might even imagine what it would be like to be you, in their situation (and perhaps subsequently deduce that you would never get into their situation). But you refuse to expend the emotional labour that could create a true bridge between the two of you. You disconnect, but you wrap it up in niceness and hope they won’t notice. You might not even notice.

At face value, this doesn’t really track with the official definitions of sympathy and empathy. By those measures, empathy is something to be employed in situations where you can’t employ sympathy. Sympathy is where you actually share emotions, and empathy is where you don’t share them, so seek instead to understand. Empathy is for when the distance between you and another is too great for you to directly relate and so you have to employ imagination. This implies that the compassionate outcome of empathy is somehow inferior to sympathy, because there’s bound to be some error in your making up of the difference.

But what if the other person is not nearly so close to you as you imagined? What if the experience that on the surface seems to so clearly map to something you yourself have experienced is actually miles apart from it? What if a person’s expression completely belies their inner state of being, at least from your point of view? What if you don’t understand like you think you do?

Sympathy is shorthand. It’s built on assumption. If we are part of an homogeneous group, then the shorthand of sympathy will be relatively effective. So maybe that’s why I have a problem with it. Because I have never been part of an homogeneous group. Any group with me in it is inherently heterogeneous in meaningful ways. Now, I don’t know if that statement of truth is more reflective of my position on the bell curve or my definition of sameness (especially because my position on the bell curve directly affects my definition of sameness), but it does mean that, in my experience, the compassionate outcome of sympathy is profoundly inferior to that of empathy.

Drama

Once Upon A Time, I had a boyfriend. He wasn’t a particularly good one, I wasn’t particularly into him, but other people seemed to think he was hot and I was really bad at breaking up with people, or just saying no thanks in the first place. So he was my boyfriend.

One night, we were going to a party. I was wearing a crop top. Now, I am, and always have been, a kind of hairy girl. So there was a small patch of dark hair beneath my belly button. Upon seeing this, my boyfriend informed me its presence was unacceptable.

Before we were able to go to the party, my boyfriend insisted on taking me to get a razor, and then shaving my belly for me. I should have dusted out of there at the first mention of this plan but, instead, I allowed it to happen, slipping into a sort of dissociated state. And then we went to the party.

We walked there. I simmered.

We arrived at the party. I simmered some more.

While everyone else presumably enjoyed the party, I stood on the periphery, not quite fully in my body, not quite sure what I was doing there, waiting until I got drunk enough to pretend I was relating to these people.

I got drunk.

I spoke to my boyfriend’s brother’s girlfriend, who coincidentally was the ex-girlfriend of a person I had very poorly concealed romantic feelings for. She told me she had broken up with my not-so-secret love because he didn’t like tattoos on girls and she wanted a tattoo. I would argue with him about this later.

In the meantime, I got drunker.

During a discussion with a group of male friends, something my boyfriend said sparked my repressed drunken outrage, and I argued with him publicly. This escalated and, in front of his friends, I slapped him and stormed out. As I departed, I heard my boyfriend’s brother’s girlfriend say “I thought I was bad!”

I wonder, if she’d known the whole story, would her response have been the same? Maybe not. But maybe. Like, even if she hadn’t said it out loud, might the voice in her head have actually said exactly the same thing? She thought she was bad for breaking up with someone who wanted to control her body, but there I was clumsily and publicly shaming someone on the way out for trying to control mine? What a relief that at least she caused less of a scene with it than me? I fucking wonder.

Renovate the ponds

When I was a kid I knew I was a big fish in a small pond. My immediate environment did very little to challenge my innate capacity. In fact, no one had any real idea of my true capacity. Nobody ever really thought to check, or knew how to check, or had the time and resources to check. It lay there, dormant and, to some extent, atrophying.

I have a high IQ, and that meant I noticed the contrast between who I could be and who I was permitted to be more keenly than some others. But that’s not the kind of potential I’m talking about. Almost every child is a big fish in a small pond, because our ponds are shallow and paltry. In fact, my ability to score well on a test got me special extensions built on my pond, and it was still woefully constricting.

The spellbinding truth is we all have unfathomable human potential. We are, as a collective, a kadeidoscope of wondrous, talent-filled possibilities. And it’s sinful how much that goes to waste because we’re never given the support or space to explore it. Take us to the sea!

It scares me, sometimes, to think about all the ways school will inevitably fail my son as he grows. And the alternative – to keep him out of school and take on that responsibility and inevitable failure myself – terrifies me too. And that’s just one kid.

I have no answers here, just many troubling questions.

Stacked odds

It’s quite tiring living in such a complex world.

I try to be informed, and I try to pick balanced sources. I know everything is biased, I know everything has an agenda, and we have to be careful with that. I know I’m inclined to radical ideas and radical responses, and I have to be careful with that.

The shitstorm we’ve been living through lately really made me want to act more to help clean it up. But the more I get into it, the less clear it seems to me what cleaning up would be, rather than just smearing it around the floor a bit more. It’s difficult not to concede that I am too insignificant a player to even find a viable route, when everything is a tightly convoluted interwoven buzz wire game. I was happy to follow the leader, but all of the leaders have been letting me down.

When you know you don’t have a clue, really, it becomes difficult to make a move, for fear of doing damage. I went into relative stasis, unwilling to become an inadvertant pawn in a game of chess I didn’t even know was being played. I think, in this interim I staked out for myself, I have started to identify the boundaries of what looks to me like soundly ethical behaviour. But its range is fucking small. I still don’t have a clue about the rest of it.

Our brains weren’t meant to cope with shitstorms of this magnitude. Maybe we can’t be saved until Elon Musk’s neural implants or whatever come to usher in a new technological phase of our evolution. Or maybe that’s what he wants us to think…