“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 (http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/williams/rabbit/rabbit.html)
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 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nyJPM2jIwjQ) and glimpses of the too-adult-to-interest-me Sanford and Son television series (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1WqazleR3FE) 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.
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.