The Importance of the Empathetic Imagination

The Importance of the Empathetic Imagination
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We've all read these posts on Facebook, you know, the ones in which the updater not only proclaims a hatred of cancer, but wants you to share it on your page too, enforcing his insistence with the guilt-inducing and completely invented (but truthy-sounding) statistic that "93 percent of you won't repost this." I have seen this less and less with time, thank God, as people have caught on to a) how blatantly manipulative it is; and b) how it does absolutely nothing to actually fight cancer. It just feeds the embarrassingly adolescent notion the poster wants to have of himself; that he is one of those few brave souls willing to go out an a limb and hate this deadly disease, dammit, and he doesn't care who knows it.

This nonsense was taken to a whole new level this morning when I read an added phrase I hadn't seen been before: "I know many of you do not give a hoot about this message because, of course, cancer has not touched you." Oh yeah? You know that, do you? Have you polled all of your 593 friends? I doubt it. Because I can't think of one person I know -- not one -- who hasn't lost a loved one to cancer; been close to a cancer survivor; or survived cancer his or herself. In fact, the vast majority of everyone I know has had multiple run-ins with cancer. Given the fact that over 1 in 3 adults will get cancer in their lifetime, and over 1 in 5 will die from it, anything else would be virtually impossible.

But let's say it was somehow true that even 20 percent of your friends were miraculously young or lucky enough to have not yet had a close encounter with cancer. What if we throw in AIDS, heart disease, drug overdoses, suicide, car accidents and Alzheimer's? Obviously, we easily reach 100 percent coverage here. Are you seriously telling me that it is somehow more painful to be close to someone going through chemo than it is to change the diaper of a parent who can't remember your name? That getting the call that your cousin has finally succumbed to pancreatic cancer is somehow more wrenching than hearing that your brother just shot himself?

I get that you may feel a pressing need to unburden yourself on Facebook when you've just left the bedside of someone who's suffering though a disease that might very well be terminal. I get that you could stare out of the hospital window and see people going about their business and feel waves of irrational anger, thinking: "Don't they know how hard this is? Doesn't anybody care?" To which I say: Grow the fuck up. That person in the bed is going through hell, not you. Do you really think this is about your pain? When your friend finally checks Facebook, do you really think she wants to read about how bad you feel about her hair loss, or rather about how much you love her and why? What conceivable good could it do to shame people with the frankly stupid contention that some of them don't feel bad enough about cancer?

Irritation at this kind of inane post might seem very last year, but at this present moment we are confronting the acute real-world consequences of a narcissistic culture in which people demand empathy while not extending it to others. That's the logical extension of "I know many of you do not give a hoot about this message because, of course, cancer has not touched you" -- the supposition that we can only understand that which has personally happened to us.

That's not only bullshit, it's dangerous bullshit. The willingness to imagine the experience of others counts. It counts enormously. I'm not black, but I take the time and effort to imagine what it's like to be black in this country, and in so doing, it changes how I perceive black lives. I see why #blacklivesmatter is necessary, and I get why I should vote for this candidate and not that one. Similarly, I have never had to cross a border illegally, live on a few dollars a day, or been homeless; and I have certainly never been bombed or tortured. But I have survived AIDS and buried a brother because of it, watched cirrhosis kill my father and seen dementia destroy the mind of my mother. (Should I mention my stint in prison? Nah.) These are my particular "greatest hits," but the truth is that we can all extrapolate enough from our own experience to at least take a walk, if only in our minds, in another person's shoes.

Right now we have millions of Americans who won't even try to imagine what it's like to flee for their lives with the clothes on their back, who can't possibly conceive that praying to the Prophet is essentially the same thing as praying to Jesus. They've actually convinced themselves that they are more likely to be killed by a terrorist than by a gun-wielding American, despite one being 1,000 times more likely to occur than the other. This fear and dehumanization of the dark-skinned and the accented starts from the subjective delusion that the specifics of our individual experience somehow count far more than the reality of our common humanity. It leads to suggestions of "registration" and "mass deportation" that cause the poll numbers of pathologically-lying politicians to rise instead of fall.

It's true that some leaps of the imagination require more effort than others -- but it doesn't really matter if what we imagine falls short of their reality. What matters is our willingness to try; because it changes how we treat other people and how we urge others treat them. Understanding what it's like to nurse a sick loved one with a deadly disease, however, usually requires no leap at all -- for most of us, it's a recent memory. So, please, don't post cut-and-paste tropes that feed a false narrative that we can't really understand things we haven't personally been through. The very notion of empathy is enough danger in this country as it is.

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