Recently, I had a brief conversation with an acquaintance about empathy. She shared that while she is proud to be highly emphatic, that very empathy often proves troublesome as she tends to subvert her needs as she strives to care for others. It is, she noted, a conundrum for her.
This conversation set me to thinking about the other night when I attended, or rather tried to attend, a large professional gathering centered around food. There were several serving stations where caterers offered a wide selection of dinner options. The servings were small, yet the tapas like menu was abundant.
When we arrived a thick crowd had congregated in the midst of the serving area. I was on crutches, which in order to serve myself and eat, I must put down. However, given my lack of balance, I need the crutches in order to navigate the jostling and bumping that occurs in chaotic, crowded spaces. I could have asked Jennie to get my food, and she would have graciously and lovingly done so, but in order for that to work I would have had to repeatedly navigate the crowd so that I could identify, and choose, food items. After assessing the situation I decided to rest for a few minutes and allow the melee to subside.
Jennie chose to mingle and after half an hour or so came to find me so we could again try to eat. By this time the crowd had thinned and the food was easily accessible. Sadly, however, the caterers were beginning to put everything away. I stood there, watching various dishes being carted. While here was considerable food remaining, I found myself stopped short, completely overwhelmed and frozen into inaction. After a couple of minutes I suggested we leave.
It was not until the next morning that I was able to identify the powerful underlying emotions that drove my incapacity; they were shame, sadness, and anger, familiar companions on this life’s journey. Sadly, the evening event had proven fertile ground for several of my deeply felt hurts and grievances.
The group involved makes much of being inclusive, and genuinely see themselves as being so, yet I consistently find them deeply Ablist and profoundly Eurocentric. Since contracting Polio at the age of seven, I have too often been marginalized by good and kind people, and the confusion and shame that accompany that are a too familiar source of pain. I know the emotions and memories that are stirred in me by acts of ablism and marginalization are often incomprehensible to otherwise emphatic friends and colleagues, and I frequently find myself torn between speaking up and remaining silent. I am also well-trained to be a “good cripple” and must continually decide whether to be likeable or honest.
I try to have empathy for those whose decisions place me in humiliating situations. Truth is, I’ve planned conferences and large professional gatherings and know how difficult, and often thankless, that task is. If I did not know how challenging it is to for mobility or sight impaired people to navigate unruly crowds, I would likely not think about the layout of a serving space; even knowing, I blunder. It is exceedingly hard to enter into someone else’ experience, not matter how we may try.
I would very much like to live in a world where my needs and experience matter, and where inclusion trumps disability, but it seems increasingly unlike this will happen in this lifetime.