Amanda Palmer wrote a piece about empathy and cyber bullying on her tumblr recently that I found thought provoking.
I think people misunderstand, sometimes, the difference between “empathy” and “sympathy”, and this is getting us in trouble. Sympathy is closer to pity. Empathy, which is essential for being human, means that you can imagine yourself in some else’s situation, good or bad. And feeling *real* empathy, even empathy with “the enemy”, with the bottom of the barrel of humanity, with the suicide bombers, with the child molesters, with the hitlers and the osamas, is necessary. If you, as a human being, can’t stop and try to imagine what sort of pain and agony and darkness must have descended upon these people to twist them up so badly, you have no roadmap to untwist the circumstances under which they were created.
I wrote this as a comment on the piece:
As if empathy comes only from our best selves, as if it’s only our kindness, or generosity that allows us to reach out and feel what another person feels. Our darkness also unites us in strange and painful ways, other’s pain or violence sings to our own, make claims of kinship where we wish there were none. We like to make the evil ‘other’ – those abusers, those nazis, those demonic monsters who have no connection to me, no humanity left in them. It’s painful to recognise that a lack of humanity is part of what it is to be human, that our humanness is vulnerable, it can be torn off, or cast off, and we can still walk and speak and eat and do violence. Empathy reminds us that the monsters do not merely prey upon us, they are us, defiled. It reminds us to treasure what makes us different from them.
It’s a topic I find relevant in many areas of my life, as an artist, and as a service provider in mental health. As soon as there is an ‘other’, you risk your bond to your own group by empathising with them. It’s one of the things that makes peer work so difficult and draining for me, the service users and the service providers can be strident and aggressive in their demands that I orient myself as one of them exclusively. I’ve lost count of the number of times staff in mental health have criticized me for ‘wearing my peer worker hat’ or my stance on how harmful our use of professional boundaries is. I’ve also struggled with how demoralising and painful it is when other service users criticise harshly, with no sense that you are also a person who is at times vulnerable, and that all relationships have some level of mutuality to them. Other peer workers can also be a group of their own, demanding adherence to their ideas – after giving a personal and exhausting talk at a conference once, I had to walk out of the next talk where a peer worker was berating a room of us for being insufficiently familiar with the world of academic research, and for getting jobs through people we knew. All groups place demands upon who is permitted to be a part of them. All groups have their ‘other’.
At a micro level, this dynamic of the ‘other’ and the risks of empathy play out in groups or friendship networks in my life in a way that wearies me. I’ve always empathised with the other, and this is the quality that people love in me when they find themselves being the other, and fear and resent in me when they find themselves hurt, stressed, or angry with someone else in the other role.
I’ve often been the ‘other’. I’ve been a lonely, bullied little kid who craved friendship and companionship with a deep longing that left me suicidal by the age of 10. I work hard now as an adult to be aware of the legacy of years of unmet needs, which tend to express themselves through numbness, bitterness, insecurity, and instability. I also work hard to resist the temptation to be comfortable in my groups, my social networks, and my work in a way that perpetuates abuse. As a service provider in mental health, I find this an extraordinary challenge. On days when I am too exhausted to do the hard work of diplomacy, to reassure angry and hurt people (which is not just the clients!) that I see their point of view, I’m at risk of rejection and hostility. It’s not a secure place to be.
This is one of the dynamics they don’t talk about in bullying. I moved to a new school in year 4. Due to a bunch of class dynamics that had nothing to do with me, I was instantly at the bottom of the social ranking and very vulnerable. Several students targeted me for bullying. This began a spiral of alienation and abuse that persisted for my school life. I was in a bad place where students who liked me were afraid to connect with me in case they were bullied too, and other students who liked me were afraid to tell their friends to stop bullying me in case they then became a target.
I didn’t stay at the bottom of the social network all the time. Sometimes something would shift my place in the culture. One year the class took up gymnastics and swimming in sports, where I excelled. I gained some respect in a subject where my appalling lack of ball skills and issues with feet and joints had left me the typical student chosen last for every team. Here’s the deal though, just because I was no longer on the bottom rung of the ladder didn’t mean the ladder had been dismantled. Someone else took my place, someone who was terrible at swimming perhaps, or embarrassed by wearing leotards in gym. There was always someone being made to feel excluded, being available for humiliation and power games, someone that everyone else could work out their own pain or frustration upon. Kids with disabilities that were insufficiently engaging to draw the protection of the teachers. Kids with mental health problems, or with abuse at home. Kids who were identified as gay (which is not the same thing as being gay).
One year in about grade 9, I’d cobbled together a small group of guys as friends. We would hang out at lunch, sometimes after school, even go to each other’s birthday parties. Another kid used to hang out with us sometimes. We used to play a lot of foursquare or brandy, fast ball games I was never particularly good at. On this day, this other kid was hanging with us, and he was terrible at ball sports and slow at running due to medical things. My mates were teasing him a bit, in a pretty good natured way, knocking the ball away from him so that he couldn’t pick it up. It wasn’t until he started to cry with frustration that my stomach flipped and the scenario that had seemed so minor and innocent a moment before suddenly became real. I was hanging out with a group and we were bullying the one kid lower on the food chain than we were. I ran over to him to comfort him and told off my mates.
As it happened, a teacher witnessed this and I was given a slip of paper later that week commending me for being brave enough to risk my friends being annoyed with me. Having this teacher recognise the challenges of that situation and frame my response in this way anchored an understanding of the risks and issues of bullying for me that has never left me. I learned a lot that day, especially how unbelievably minor bullying seems to be when you are not the target. I also learned that without some kind of major social influence in the class or school – if you stand up for someone being abused you are always risking abuse yourself. Every time I got off that bottom rung, I’d find myself being forced into a bystander position to watch some other kid suffer. Groups of students roaming the school to hunt down the ‘gay kid’ and intimidate him. Older students roughing up younger students in the toilets. Girls humiliating and ostracizing other girls who were from poor families, or had accidents with menstruation, or who made the mistake of letting the wrong boy go too far with them.
These cultures cost everyone in them, they are built on fear, distrust, a profound need to fit in and find acceptance that seems laughable to adults, and a complex guessing game of social worth where a misstep can cost you all your allies. Everytime we tackle school bullying by advising the victims to behave in ways that make them less a target, we are also telling them to accept their role as bystanders to those kids who become the target next.
I had a weird relationship with many of the kids who bullied me. Those who had some kind of social power and were tormenting me out of boredom, sadism, or fear of difference I rarely got close to. But kids who tortured because they were themselves being tortured often had a strange connection with me. There was an empathetic bond. I heard their stories. I kept their histories of fear and degradation safe. These were kids who’s dad’s knocked their mum’s around, or whose older brothers were creatively abusive, or whose mum’s made them keep her company in her bed at nights long into their teens. With some of them, a space would be created for these conversations, like long bus school trips. They’d sit with me and talk, share funny stories or tell me secrets about painful things. They would meet needs for safety and honesty and compassion that they couldn’t in their own friendships. I would not get those needs met. At the end of the trip we’d all get off the bus with the unspoken understanding that the truce was over and I was fair game again. It wasn’t personal, someone had to be on the bottom rung. Half the kids who tormented me only did it to make sure it wasn’t going to be them. The same dynamic happened for me in theatre, where for the duration of the play I was a valued part of a team. Once it was over I would be distraught, because my membership died with the play, and the brutal reality of my lonely life would once again return.
The problem here isn’t the bully or the behaviour of the victim, it is a group dynamic that treats some kids as more important than others, more worthy of protection, more powerful and privileged, and those at the bottom of that as fair game because they brought it on themselves. In some classrooms, those with power – kids with a lot of influence, or insightful teachers, influence this dynamic and make it safer to be unpopular and disliked or in conflict with the popular people. In other classes – like mine, there’s a dark undercurrent of abuse, violence, mental illness, pain, alienation, and rage, and these things are expressed through a brutal social dynamic that leaves every student afraid of winding up as the target.
My empathy with my bullies made life hard for me. It’s difficult to tear a kid to shreds when you know s/he’s only making your life miserable because s/he’s in terrible pain. It is also made life difficult for me because I hated that I purchased my freedom from being bullied at the cost of having to be a bystander to the abuse of another kid. I could have gone through school with a lot less bullying, and a lot more inclusion, but the cost to my own values and beliefs was always higher than I was willing to pay. Everytime I got off the bottom rung I found myself allying with the next kid on it. I never developed enough social power to change the dynamic itself.
I remember once at about 15, confronting a boy who had bullied me terribly as a kid. I was struggling tremendously at the time, and in a difficult twist of events my drama group were doing a play that included a nazi youth betraying and abusing someone. This boy had been cast in the role of the abuser. Week after week of rehearsals, I sat and watched my bully torment another person. It was a powerful trigger and turned what had been my haven into a nightmare of hyper-vigilance and flashbacks I was trying desperately to conceal. One day I went to drink from a water fountain and he came up behind me and leaned in to drink from the one next to me. I hadn’t realised he was near and flinched back. He looked at me with derision and asked why I always did that around him. The world paused for a moment.
I decided to call him out. I unfocused my gaze so that I could look him in the face without seeing him, and told him that when we were younger he used to bully me a lot. I was expecting contempt or denial. What I got confused me.
He looked suddenly deeply sad and alone. It was like I could see a child in him drop his head, turn away, and walk off down a long corridor. He said to me “You have no idea how many kids have told me that. I don’t remember any of it.” And then he walked away. I don’t recall ever speaking with him again. This is a kid who I still sometimes have nightmares about.
Those are not too uncomfortable stories to tell, they make me sound like a victim or a hero. I played that role at times in other’s lives, but I also hurt people. I made choices I now regret, I was not honest with people, I used the little power that I did have in ways that excluded and hurt others. Most of us have power somewhere in our lives. We work out our rage or our demons from the places we don’t have it in the areas we do have it. I’m still trying to make sense of this.
When I was 14 I allied with a girl I’ll call Alison who was being bullied by her group of friends. She paid a high price for inclusion in their group, she was often run down, criticised, and her job was basically to fetch and carry. I was angry about this and she and I disconnected from them to hang out with each other. I then went through hell with a classmate who fell in ‘love’ with me, and tangled me into his suicidal distress. My capacity to empathise with him touched profound unmet needs to be heard and feel connected. He became obsessive and dangerous. At the end of a six month ordeal I was left with PTSD and total confusion about what just happened and why.
Alison had her own demons, and instead of finding comfort in our friendship she became a burden. She didn’t understand the PTSD, and neither did I. She couldn’t understand my new terror of touch, my sense of disconnection, the simmering rage that lay waiting beneath an apathy so heavy I didn’t care if I died. Her efforts to connect exhausted and triggered me. One day she covered my whole desk in tiny sickeningly cute stickers of teddy bears while I was away. I often had belongings defaced or stolen by my bullies. I was furious, and choked it down to ask her not to touch my stuff. She didn’t understand. I couldn’t explain. I had run out of capacity to cope with things that didn’t used to matter so much, like being traded in at lunch time if someone more interesting was happy to include her. Our friendship had never been strong enough or close enough to have those conversations, and when I had been in a better place I could afford more generosity for the times she hurt me. I didn’t tell her about any of this, I just retreated. I pushed her completely out of my life over a 6 month period and justified it on the basis that she had always been hard work and I no longer had the energy. She was devastated. Her every effort to reconnect was rebuffed. I took her away from her original friends, made her feel safe and cared about, then dumped her alone. She was vulnerable and bullied and left with no idea of what just happened. I was not a hero in her story. I work very hard in my friendships now, to find ways to be both honest and warm. I fail. I try again.
We can turn empathy off when it no longer suits us in ways that are frightening. It is hard to acknowledge the times we have done that, because it put us in a place where have to see our own role as something we have no respect for. It’s hard to face our own limitations and flaws, and even harder to face them and still find sense of love and self-acceptance. Empathy can also be dangerous. It’s kept me in relationships where I was being hurt, because I struggled to wrap my brain around a crucial idea: that being able to understand someone’s behaviour is not a reason to put up with it. (See Stalking the Soul: Emotional Abuse and the Erosion of Identity) Over-empathising with someone in a position of power who lacks empathy for you is extremely dangerous. Empathy has cost me my peace and my chance to slip unnoticed through high school while other kids suffered, but it’s also protected my sense of identity and values. It’s a way I connect with other people, but it also alienates me from them when I empathise with someone I’m not supposed to.
Power scares me senseless. One of the things I have learned about it is that very often, we don’t notice when we have it. We don’t FEEL powerful. We are acutely and painfully aware of every area of life where it is absent and yet often oblivious to the places we do have it. We repeat learned dynamics, and set up new relationships on the same principles as the old, with merely a shuffle in what role we now play. We demand responsibility and empathy from those who have power over us, but are frequently unaware and uncaring of the way we use our own power. We want to be understood and loved, but often there are people we wish to draw a line around and say I do not want to have to understand or love them.
Peer workers are constantly being co-opted into the role of staff, pressured to choose a primary allegiance to the organisation that employs them. With the need for work, we are in an impossibly vulnerable position, carrying the weight of the need to be or provide a voice for all the other dis-empowered people, and trying to unite two groups of people who are often hopelessly incapable of having empathy for each other. When groups are full of fear or pain, they do not allow their members to be dual citizens, and they demand a loyalty to their own members that prohibits the capacity for empathy for the other – whether the ‘other’ is a terrorist, a bully, or a victim. We see and rightly decry this process when the alienated other is someone vulnerable, but we justify it when the other is someone we need to believe we share nothing in common with.
This empathy has written me out of my plans to get a job in mental health. There are amazing people working in it, people who have found a capacity within themselves to recognise the limits of their power, and to let go of what they cannot change. I have not. I am afraid of power and what it does to someone who wields it without reflection. I am afraid of the temptation of money and group belonging and security. I am afraid of the slow erosion of values. I do not trust myself to walk that path with wisdom, only with profound regret. I cannot stop empathising, at any point, with the person in the room with the least voice and power, and it kills me. Especially when they are angry with me, disappointed in me, or critiquing my services. I find myself split between my own perspective and theirs in a way that tears my head apart. I often find myself the only person working to see more than one perspective and find a way to unite them. I still have almost no capacity to see the limits of my own reach and accept them. Being required to be a bystander to things I find unjust makes me want to burn down buildings and run screaming into the night. I don’t cope well with systems, even those I build myself.
I don’t have answers for this. My path forwards is to always do my best to live with love. I believe that empathy is crucial, not only for those who are hurt, but those who are hurting others. Not to condone or minimize, but to face the world as it is, and the potential for darkness in others and ourselves. We can empathise with people and still utterly denounce their actions and hold them accountable. Sometimes following our instincts protects us from our own darkness, sometimes we find ourselves doing harm and don’t know how we got there. Empathy is part of understanding that, making some sense of what happened in those who now lack it, and how to strengthen it in ourselves and our communities. When we empathise with an ‘other’ we stretch ourselves over no man’s land to do so. In a war, this means our guts are ripped up by barbed wire, and we risk both groups tossing us into the no mans land. When it’s to a ‘monster’, we must face the disturbing reality of our own vulnerability to losing what makes us human, and we risk the rest of the world thinking of and treating us as one of the monsters.
“I got death threats. My twitter feed exploded with more than 5,000 tweets from strangers telling me I was a un-american monster for “sympathizing with a terrorist”. People wrote comments on my blog about how I should have my own legs blown off.”
In our friendships, empathy inspires a level of courage to be both loving and warm in ways that power confuses and trauma overwhelms. It is very easy to let myself off the hook for hurting Alison, and yet to be deeply wounded and angry at friends who have done this to me. I keep coming back to the same ideas – that it is difficult to remain fully human. That the act of living alters and erodes identity. That love can fill our lives to the brim, and also cost us everything. That love is essential but insufficient. That the alienated are also alienating.
We think we are kind, when we are only happy
CS LewisThere are only two motives,
two procedures, two frameworks,
Love and fear.
Love and fear.