Infinite Empathy

“Please don’t get me anymore dolls or stuffed animals, mom. I can’t take care of all of them.”    —  Suzy, age 11.


I had about ten dolls and stuffed animals and I couldn’t stand the idea of any of them feeling less valued or less loved by me.     Call it Velveteen Rabbit syndrome (

Up until very recently, I would have called it an excess of empathy, a sign of a tender, open child heart.

I have always thought of myself as a highly empathetic, emotionally intelligent person.     Now I’m thinking about how easy it is for me, as a White girl and then eventually White woman growing up in an entirely White environment to mistake emotional projection and universal view for empathy.

Take a look at the slumber party picture with all of those White girls.  At this point in my life, I had never met a person of color.  Bill Cosby records ( and glimpses of the too-adult-to-interest-me Sanford and Son television series ( made up the entirety of my interracial contact.

I didn’t feel what these stuffed animals and dolls were feeling.  I felt FOR them.

And in this lily White environment, every person I interacted with in my daily life was so much like me and living such a similar experience to mine that I was constantly affirmed, through interactive feedback, that I DID know what they were feeling when I was doing all of that projection.

I thought, read, wrote and taught a lot about justice and fairness.  My parents, armchair civil rights activists, taught me to “not be racist” and “how to think and “act like a man” in order to combat sexism.  Graduate school introduced me to amazing writers and ideas — but reading Gloria Anzaldua or bell hooks wasn’t the same as empathizing, really understanding them..

But I didn’t know what do DO.  And there’s only so much you can hold in your brain.    My world was already filled with my life.  Adding new things to think about was like stacking plates on the side of my desk.  Everything just kept falling on to the floor.

My cancer journey has taught me that we have pretty limited brain space.  We can only process so many things at a time.    A bit of chemo or some high levels of stress and we can easily break connections, thought pathways, reduce our cognitive speed…  We don’t really have infinite RAM, despite how many brain exercises we try to do.   And as we get ill and older, that computing speed doesn’t really improve.

I thought about justice.  But I didn’t do much.  No bandwith.  There’s never enough bandwith, right?  How can we White people immersed in our complete and fulfilling, but completely White lives just add to that already full cognitive load?   I mean, I was struggling with learning to be a parent and manage a marriage and start a new career…


The thing is, eventually, I learned that our brain’s ability to manage cognitive load is limited, but our heart’s ability to create empathy and all of the emotional intelligence that comes with that is infinite.  The more we carry in our hearts with empathetic love the more we are able to carry.

When I was in my late 30s and early 40s, I attended Courageous Conversation trainings at Bellevue College.   It was empathy training.  Now there is a long story to my long life time journey in empathy, but here’s the short version.

I was privileged, because of my colleagues of color and the intellectual and emotional work done by the trainers and curriculum designers in this program, to be able to learn how I impact others racially — and then I could start to hear how their experience of walking this earth is so radically different from mine.    My colleagues of color provided me with many gifts in their storytelling and their willingness to be emotionally available.  I was learning I was White.

Learning this was transformative.  It was exhilarating because I felt so awakened.    But it wasn’t a free pass to empathy.

If you think you can hear someone’s story one time and suddenly empathize with them, you are mistaking projection with empathy.  Even if hearing the story, for you, is transformative.

I’m smart.  I understood these concepts and perspectives presented to me pretty darn quickly for a White woman of that era.  So when my colleagues-of-color looked to me for more participation in the movement, more leadership, some of them were a bit stunned at my resistance.

Cause, see, I could feel it.  I could feel that what I was feeling wasn’t empathy.  Not yet.  I was still feeling awakened, special, smart, alive — and pretty cool for a White woman.    I was not feeling the pain they described.    There was such a large gap between their experience of the world we walked and my own.

I had always considered myself empathetic.  But I had to acknowledge that my ability to empathize was horrendously undergrown.

The recent The New York Times article from July 10th “Empathy is Actually a Choice” discusses how empathy is not an innate, unchangeable state.  We can choose to develop empathy.  But the article makes it sound like a cognitive skill, like learning math.

Empathy is not like learning math.  My experience was that empathy was something I had to grow.  It wasn’t something I could just decide.  I had to choose to put myself in situations and places where I could fall in love with people.  I could fall apart among those who love me and rebuild and repair with a bigger heart.

It takes time with people.  It takes mindfulness.  It takes rupture.  It takes repair.  It takes STORIES of real people in real places.

So, White friends, if you’re conflicted about sharing your emotions about all of the Black deaths being illustrated, if you’re feeling frozen because you’re not sure you’re having the “right” response or the “appropriate” feelings, start by forgiving yourself, stop promising to analyze it.   Cut  yourself some slack.    Don’t give yourself cognitive overload.   Don’t go to pity.  Stop the “sympathy.”   Because when  you freeze up and get trapped in your thoughts (or what you THINK others are experiencing) you stop posting.  You stop talking.  You abandon all of us.

Instead, just let yourself feel a bit.  Post a small note about that feeling.    We can choose to grow in certain directions as adults.  But growing takes time and we can’t grow as fast as we’d like, very often.

Reread some Toni Morrison.  Watch some good TV with complex Black characters you care about.    Take that picture of Alton Sterling’s son and think of those boy tears next to the tears of those close to you who have loved and lost and been betrayed by life.  Love that boy.

Alton Sterlings Son

And this is what will happen.  You will not run out of space.    The tears you shed for him will connect with tears you hold for yourself and for your closest and dearest.  You’ll be able to hold a bit of loving sad grief in your heart and enjoy your dog’s joy  at the dog park with even more gratitude.  You’ll add a conversation, a connection, to a random stranger you meet there because you’ll start talking with your heart — maybe about race.  Maybe about loss.  Maybe about death.  Maybe about just how it feels to be in that moment at that space and place.

The love will grow and grow.

Empathy is infinite, White people.


The thing that hurt the most? Pulling off the band-aids.

There are a lot of people wondering how I’m doing after my BIG BRAIN SURGERY on Thursday. So while what I’m really thinking about right now is my own role in supporting Black Lives Matter (and that includes supporting the police and government officials who work hard to protect Black lives, all our lives, and combat systems that don’t. Tears and heart to Dalllas), here’s a quick update on me.

This is before THE SURGERY.   I had a nice breakfast.  It’s nice to have a nice breakfast before a day of procedures.  Just pointing that out.


Now if we define surgery as actually cutting into skin, this is AFTER the SURGERY.


The scalp is sensitive, so the Novocain shots weren’t completely painless.  And when my esteemed neurosurgeon, Dr. Monteith, screwed the bolts into my head, there was a bit of psychic and physical discomfort.  But I would guess it ranked lower than the three shots my kid endured for Middle School last week.    The discomfort was immediately gone.

Look, here I am trying on the radiation hat.


Actually, I don’t know what that thing is on my head.  I was on a sedative and forgot to ask questions.  It looks funny, though, right?

Here I am chatting with my own personal PHYSICIST!  They don’t put the Physicist’s name on all the email and paperwork they give you, so I’ll have to hunt it down.


This right before we go into the room where the Gamma Knife machine is.

I’m really excited to meet him.  I tell him I’m married to a Physicist and the parent of a fiercely excellent STEM focused high schooler.

He apologizes for not being in “real Physics gear” which, from my personal experience, usually consists of slightly stained but clean cargo shorts, a pristine T-shirt with some cool science logo on it,  hiking shoes (not boots, the lighter shoes) or sandals with white socks, and an old, fuzzy fleece jacket.   This is all usually accompanied by a clear need for a hair trim (including ears).

He asked me if I’m a sociologist!!    College English instructor, I say, but my research is in sociolinguistics (hence the poor capitalization skills).

He said all of the physicists he knows are married to sociologists or people in similar fields.    We chatted about experimental physics, weapons, internal compasses, morality — and diversity.    He talked about the extremely focused researchers he knows within the world of physics.  He talked about his fear of weapons research driven by people more excited by he puzzle  of the physics problem than the impact on humanity.   And although every physicist I have ever known (and I think I’ve gotten to know quite a few quite well) has been a complex, morally centered, socially engaged, empathetic individual, there is a pull to that puzzle and the reward, the prestige…the privilege..that comes in compensation for solving that puzzle.  There is a certain type of problem solving and thinking that is rewarded systemically.

I talked about the need for diversity in groups, the need for diverse viewpoints, empathies and perspectives in that decision making process.

We both agreed that I don’t want a sociologist or English instructor programming my Gamma Knife, though.  I want that puzzle solving focus on the math and science directing this radiation.   We need the diverse groups.  We don’t all need to be doing the same jobs.  But the power structure needs to enforce the consideration of diverse viewpoints and we can’t trust the in-group to do this for themselves.

Took a nap for two hours under the Gamma Knife machine, which does, indeed, look like an MRI machine.  It’s much quieter, though.

Dr. Loiselle, my radiation oncologist, comes in to take out the screws and remove my hat.  He tells me they zapped it all, including the harder to define bloody spot they took all the extra images for.

I tell him I look forward to seeing him next time.  He tries to tell me that he doesn’t think these tumors will come back.

I don’t think THESE tumors will come back.  But I’m definitely hoping that I live long enough for some new tumors to come back.  Because my brain is not going to kill me.  My brain mets don’t change my prognosis at this point.  My liver is still trying to grow a garden of death.

Newest tumor markers are up again.  So it looks like that 1300 score was a false report.  We’ll see.


I figure every three month brain scan will be a marker of success.

I am still here.

And then for the next 24 hours I did this:





(Thank you, Kristen and Jon Peterson!  This box lasted through dessert because I wouldn’t let anyone open it before dinner!!)

Finally, last night, I ripped off the little band-aids on my forehead.


They use some STICKY band-aids in that joint!!  Yeowch.

Swedish Hospital and Cancer?

Great science.

Great practitioners,

Great people.

I look forward to meeting people in these spaces and places.  I feel cared for.  I feel comfortable.  I pretty much always walk out feeling better than when I walked in.

Now let’s get back to talking about privilege and empathy.






Boys, Empathy, Pain

Last night, the night before my Gamma Knife procedure, Paul came into our room in the middle of the night, on the brink of tears, because he was having a sad moment he couldn’t push away.  He felt secure about my health and my treatment, cognitively, at least.  He felt safe and happy, or so his mind told him.  But the simple end of a series of stories he was enjoying, the loss of his favorite characters, reduced him to sobs.


We’re in Middle School now.  We’re entering the age of emotional separation and independence.  So it’s been quite  a while since Paul has sought out emotional solace with me.

It makes me so proud that he does so.   A son who chooses to come share, to talk through his worries about life, justice,the universe, purpose, is a son born with a good heart and good adult role models.  Adults around him who share their own joys and pains in vulnerable, honest ways, with smiles, laughter, tears and  occasionally apologies, when those negative emotions get squelched into a box that can only erupt as anger.

I see the beauty of my son’s emotional presence, strength and honesty in this picture of Alton Sterling’s 15-year old son crying at a news conference about his father’s murder at the hands of two White police officers.

Alton Sterlings Son

This was the first image I had of this family.    He emotes like my son.  Immediately I was in love with this boy, someone who has clearly been raised with the same open heart and emotional connection.  Clearly, an adult or multiple adults have been available to this boy to help him understand harsh and dangerous truths while keeping hope and love as the priority.  This boy has lost not only much of the sense of security or sense of justice he may have carried, he has lost the man who clearly showed him how to live with such injustices and still find joy, love.

Look at this man’s face.  This is a father who loves well.  He sees people completely and with empathy.  This is the smile of someone who loves to be alive and lives in gratitude for the love around him.  I know this face.  It’s the face of any individual who has gone through great suffering and learned to forgive and grow from it.  It’s the face of someone who has had to work so hard for what he has that he has no fear of loss.  He knows how to rebuild again.   He lives in gratitude amid the bitterness he must feel (but here I don’t know) at what our society has dealt him.    He gets by as best he can so that he can live with the joy this life brings him, his family.  And in particular, that beautiful son.


Facebook Friends Kim Pollock and Larry Boykin posted an article from the New York Times about how empathy can be learned.  Some of my favorite education scholars and researchers are cited in this piece.  It’s worth a read.   It’s really got me thinking

What strikes me is the discussion of how privilege and a lack of empathy are intertwined.  Before this shooting, I was going to write about fear.  There is, of course, also a lot of simple greed in privilege’s entanglement with empathy.

What went through those White police officers’ minds when they killed this beautiful father?  Why are they so afraid to see this human being fully and complexly?  As an individual with a huge warm smile, standing on a corner and, yes, who knows, maybe annoying people with appeals to purchase his product.  Why don’t they begin by speaking to this person as if he were as complex, well-intentioned, reasonable, loving and deserving of respect as they view themselves to be?

Huge questions with many true answers and insights..  I have some cancer answers.   I’ll talk about those.  We all need to be talking about this lack of empathy.

We all have some answers to why it’s hard to learn empathy.  We alll need to share.  And get a little bit real with ourselves.