You don’t know what empathy is (you just do as you’re told)

So this is a bit disorganized since it began life as a Facebook rant. Bear with me. It gets more cogent and less rant-y as it goes.

It really bothers me that no one ever brings up mental health in this country except in relation to trauma. Right now I’m thinking about #DAPL and the fire in Oakland and how I’ve seen a lot of localities offering free/low-cost trauma counseling. I don’t at all begrudge these victims the support they need but I’m SO FREAKING IRRITATED by this system whereby we assume all it takes for someone to get healthy mentally is the emotional equivalent of a few sutures and some superhero bandaids.

This paradigm makes about as much sense as never going to the doctor or even talking about being sick until you break your femur or start vomiting blood. Imagine if you had untreated cancer for ten years (somehow) and then you pass out one day, get rushed to the ER, and offered a handful of sessions and then kicked out or told to start over with a new doctor.

Setting aside the absolute-freaking-lutely deplorable fact that this actually does happen in our country, at least it’s not the standard for physical health. It is for mental health, though.

Most universities and colleges only offer 10 sessions of crisis counseling. No middle school classes are ever taught on mental health, no high school assemblies, no mandatory state emotional training, not even a set of guidelines on healthy emotional habits. We bicker endlessly over sex education when emotionally overwhelmed and suppressed youth are gaining access to dangerous weapons and ruining dozens if not hundreds or thousands of lives.

Bullying happens because insecure people can’t tolerate that emotion and fumble to replace it with superiority. Hate happens because fearful people seek a more tangible “problem” that they can physically “solve.”

People in the press calling for empathy with the “white working class” are confused in more ways than one. First of all, the Trump voters these articles are trying to identify are primarily middle class, college-educated whites. Second of all, what they are actually demanding is pity disguised as sympathy — feel bad for these people because woe are they. It is terrible to be poor and white in American and thus we must look past their faults and their terrible behavior to the bleeding hearts underneath. Setting aside that this logic is just about never applied in the case of people of color (except when it allows a white person to play savior), it’s just bullshit.

Anyone who has spent significant time disciplining a child knows that you do not reward terrible behavior by giving into its demands. That is a great way to raise a little hellion who is abusive to everyone they meet (*COUGH* sound like anyone we know?! Maybe someone who thinks a million dollars is a small loan?). Sympathy is to feel *for* someone and it’s often just as patronizing as it sounds.

Empathy, true empathy, is to feel WITH someone.

To empathize someone is to listen to them and to feel what they are feeling. The most obvious feelings of universal empathy in our culture are associated with extreme emotions such as grief — the death of a beloved public figure, like Prince, for example; joy — those who can’t help but cry at a wedding; fear — the feeling most Americans had watching the live footage of the World Trade Center attacks.

The examples I just gave are all “real world” experiences, but our most common empathetic exercise is in listening to stories. We find a story to be particularly exquisite when it “moves” us or when it “resonates” emotionally. An excellent film makes us cry with laughter or despair — when watching Toy Story 3, one doesn’t think “ah it’s a shame those plastic toys are going to be melted, the children will be disappointed.” One might instead mentally scream “SOMEBODY SAVE WOODY!”

In western society stories form our most comprehensive vocabulary for communication emotion. I can same I’m happy, or I can start singing “Love is an Open Door.” I can tell you I’m skeptical or I can share a gif of Gillian Anderson as Dana Scully. Search your feelings. You know it to be true.

So, to recap:

  1. We have stupid easy access to weapons in this country
  2. We have absolutely dismal access to mental health resources in this country — pretty much you have to implode
  3. The good news is, we can fix these problems with (actual) empathy and emotional literacy
  4. The bad news is:

Ah yeah, hadn’t gotten that far yet. The bad news is we’ve spent the last 40 or 50 years (or more? Probably more.) defunding arts education and stigmatizing emotional vulnerability. Add to that the fact that we only recently have begun to de-pathologize emotions that fall outside of the norm — non-heterosexual feelings, for example — we are FUCKING TERRIBLE AT EMPATHY.


Could you imagine if a doctor told you to read a health pamphlet on lung cancer when you have asthma? This is what you sound like New York Times. You sound like Ben Carson talking about gynecology or… I don’t know… what’s even more ridiculous? How about Housing and Urban Development?


All this is to say that we have been dumping resources into STEM at the expense of the arts for YEARS often because very powerful bullies find themselves feeling threatened by cultural critique and emotional complexity. Mostly though, it’s because emotionally ignorant people don’t know how to solve problems that are inherently emotional in nature.

Take it from someone who empathizes TOO much (seriously, I can not deal with horror or humiliation based humor AT ALL) here’s what ya’ll need to do to address the epidemic of hate, violence and addiction that plagues our society:

  1. Give the arts their funding back! Post-haste mo-fos! Haven’t you seen all those Kevin Spacey movies? They got the idea from somewhere!
  2. Preventative mental health services! For EVERYONE. LITERALLY EVERYONE. I MEAN LITERALLY LITERALLY.
  3. The CDC and the AMA and the whatever the hell else health organizations need to make us a mental health “food pyramid” and kids need to be made to memorize that shit the way we had to learn about dairy, protein, grain, something, something. Whatever they changed it, but the point was they TRIED. Also guidelines about number 2.
  4. Stop pretending that existential trauma can be healed in six one hour sessions. Seriously. It just makes you look stupid. And cruel. (Don’t tell me it’s better than nothing. I’ve been there. It’s not necessarily better than nothing.)
  5. More federal funding to National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities.
  6. Governing bodies should require representation from academia including scholars in critical cultural studies and the arts. We need to disinvest in the capitalistic myth that art is only valuable insofar as it can be commoditized.
  7. Can we PLEASE break up with capitalism? Like seriously. It is NOT GOOD FOR US. Like… remember when we made watches with radium and then we realized they were killing us and we stopped? PUT DOWN THE WATCH.
  8. Just — can we please realize when it is or isn’t appropriate to make an emotional argument because EVERYONE is bad at this. Everyone.
  9. Everyone needs to learn what Tone Policing is and QUIT IT.
  10. Feminism. Because: the western tradition of mind/body dualism associates the body with passion/emotion and the mind with logic and rationality. Also patriarchy likes to associate itself with the mind and feminist with the body. Therefore we have feminine/body/ethos = bad, masculine/mind/logos = good. Manly men don’t feel feels. Which is obviously bullshit. So when manly men feel feels they lash out and murder people. This is the meaning of the term “toxic masculinity.” The solution? More cowbell — er… feminism. We need it.

Okay. Rant done.

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[[Puts away soapbox]]