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.
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.
I take too much responsibility for other people’s feelings.
I’m excruciatingly tuned in to how other people are feeling. It took me a long time to learn that a whole bunch of those feelings are nothing to do with me. People are complicated creatures living complicated lives, and they didn’t just emerge from the abyss a second ago to enter into this conversation with me. They’re carrying stories and problems and worries. That is mostly where their feelings come from. Sometimes, I may remind them of those stories and problems and worries, but I didn’t create them. It is fairly rare for their feelings to be directly or solely caused by me.
Now, even though I know that, if we take a look at my behaviour we’ll see I still dicky-dance about a lot trying not to cause anyone undue hurt. So, why, exactly, do I think dicky-dancing is required to avoid causing undue hurt? It seems an awful lot like I might have spent too much time around people looking for a reason to get hurt. People who were going to get hurt regardless of what I said or did.
Anyway, dicky-dancing is a terrible method to resort to. Just asking for some stepped-on toes.
Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries.
I’m bad at boundaries.
Most people I know are bad at boundaries.
Is that because most people are bad at boundaries? Or because only people who are bad at boundaries can tolerate people who are bad at boundaries?
I notice, when I try to instate or uphold healthy boundaries, that a lot of people don’t like it. My first thought, of course, is that I’m doing it wrong. Which may be true. But I suspect it’s probably more to do with violated expectations.
I also notice, when I try to instate or uphold healthy boundaries, that I often don’t really like it either. It’s hard work. It’s effort to maintain the balance of empathy and kindness with drawing lines. I fuck it up a lot.
I also notice, though, that when other people set clear boundaries, I love it. It doesn’t happen that often, but I feel so free when it does.
So I know what I am chasing: People to draw adjoining shapes with.