The arrogance of empathy

You want to feel my pain and you want me to feel yours. I suffer from chronic back pain. I am autistic. I am also a middle-aged white male born from middle class parents. You do not feel my pain. You cannot know how it is to have an autistic perspective. And I cannot feel what it is like not to be privileged. All we can do is try to understand each other. And to do that the first thing we need to do is to accept what the other reports and accept it at face value. Literally at face value. Because when you say (or I say) that we feel the other’s pain we deceive ourselves into knowing something we cannot know. We are frauds. And, no understanding can come from fraud whatever good intentions we may think we have.

Now you may say that the word empathy doesn’t exactly mean that. You might be right. It is a word and therefore something that needs to be understood in context. Like you need to understand me in context, I need to be give you the benefit of the doubt. That said, you cannot feel my pain, you cannot take my perspective for that would simply be arrogance, and arrogance never leaves room for self-doubt. “What then?”, you might say (if you feel for me enough to be open for my perspective, otherwise just leave this – and me – be).

At one point in time I was almost convinced that, being autistic, I lacked this mysterious, splendid faculty of empathy. That I needed the horrible long detour of trying to think my way through your situation to arrive at the conclusion that it was a sorry or merry state to be in. That, even after taking this long and tiring detour, I missed something essential: to feel what you felt. But, on closer inspection, people around me did not find any of that too bad. They told me I was a nice guy. They maintained this despite me missing cues left and right and saying things rather more crudely than most. I was not a fraud; somewhat weird but not a fraud. I am a lucky guy and not principally because I was born into white male privilege. I am a lucky guy mainly because people around me try to understand me, despite my weirdness. I know now I did, in part, contribute to this success because I tried always to make the long and hard detour for them just like they had to do for me. Indeed, one thing is clear: they did not feel what I felt.

That sounds harsh. Let me explain based on my pain. Pain is a safer territory. We have a shared word for the feeling-of-pain. So it seems simple. I have pain. You had pain. That is certainly a feeling we can share. The thing is: we can’t. My pain is chronic. Sometimes it’s just this nagging feeling in the lower back. Sometimes it’s a wildfire spreading to my side. Sometimes it’s as if somebody kicked me in the balls 15 minutes ago but lasting for hours on end. And sometimes it is a pleasant presence translating into a heaviness of the right leg. It makes me write this whilst lying down because it allows me to keep it at bay (that – and pain killers too). When it’s gone it makes me ashamed because I am always trying to work from my bed which means I do not work, as others do whether they want it or not, from an office. I then desperately want it to come back so it gives me a reason for lying – so I don’t feel like I’m lying. I know my pain will only get worse or that my lying (or pain killer intake, probably both) will only get more frequent as its origin is degenerative.

Do you feel my pain? Do you dare to maintain you feel my pain? Or will you question my report of it? Will you say to me (as I sometimes say to myself, in the maddening moments just before a meltdown) that I should just man up and quit feeling sorry for myself? Well, you might and at least that would show some spine in you even if you lack a heart. But it would be wrong because, you know, I live with this pain and you don’t and I know only a single thing for sure: I. am. not. a. fraud.

Which brings me to via a long and tiring detour to this simple insight: it may well be true that some of you can feel what some of you feel but that is nothing else as a shortcut that simply cannot work all of the time. It’s simply arrogant to presume this is the default and that your way of being, as default, dismisses you of taking the long and hard detour of an honest effort to think your way through somebody else’s situation. You are not nearly as hard on yourself as you think others should be on themselves. You are a fraud for letting yourself off the hook so easily, believing that your feeling is the ultimate reference for all experiences anybody else might conceivably have.

There’s only one real reference to the experience somebody else has: it is her report of it. Believing otherwise is denying that the horizon somebody else is looking at cannot at all be different from yours. It’s a basic misunderstanding which makes any attempt at a real understanding impossible. Any understanding begins from acknowledging diversity, like I acknowledge not feeling the pain of people discriminated based on sex, color, religion – in acknowledging I cannot speak for them I have an outside chance – based on a long and tiring detour of course – of authentically communicating with them. Maybe our horizons will fuse somewhat. Maybe based on being shit out of luck pain-wise I may relate to their being shit-out-of-luck and vice versa.

Maybe (the rest is arrogance and/or laziness, if these two concepts are at all different, of which maybe later more ;-).




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