Restoring Radical Empathy

This morning I read this letter that John Steinbeck wrote to his son about love. His son, a youngster away at boarding school, confessed to being in love and Steinbeck responded with words heartfelt and true.

” There are several kinds of love. One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you — of kindness and consideration and respect — not only the social respect of manners but the greater respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable. The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn’t know you had.”

The words struck me in particular this morning and pushed me to reflect on my reaction to love as of late.

I keep seeing posts on social media, in news outlets, etc., that essentially remind us that “love is the answer.” In light of what we’ve seen in these last weeks (which, admittedly, is not much different than we’ve seen in these last months or years), mass shootings, white supremacists terrorizing peaceful protests, Muslims targeted with hate, refugees and their children being turned away from safety over and over, the answer, so says social media, is love.

Every time I see someone post or repost that sentiment, I feel my heart rate quicken and my jaw clench. Yes. Love. Good plan. That’s worked out so well for us so far.

I am a peacemaker. I’ve spent 14 years in a helping profession. I am tragically conflict avoidant. But I feel enraged by that platitude.

I am all out of patient, compassionate, empathetic love.

I just finished reading Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ National Book Award-winning nonfiction book written in the form of a letter to his son. If you haven’t read this, go get a copy.  Be warned: this is not easy bedtime reading. This isn’t some schlocky Malcolm Gladwell shit. It will challenge you, both in the complexity of the subject and the prose. I’m a very fast reader and it took me two weeks to finish. IMG_6095

Some complain that his words are hopeless and angry. To that I say, yes. This is not a book written to inspire the average person to make change. It is not a recipe for a salve to heal the deep division of race in our country. It is a book that is written by a black man to his black son about what it is to be black in America. Which is to say, he feels hopeless, trapped, constrained, examined, disappointed and angry.

Take a moment and imagine what it is like to feel like that all the time.

(Also, by the way, this is genius writing at its finest. This is what writers aspire to: to write in such a way that the reader feels at their core the what the narrator is feeling. Coates has so effectively and unapologetically drawn us into his heart–or as close as he’s willing to let us get.)

I am tired of talking and writing into a brick wall about racial and social injustice. I feel mile 20 marathon fatigue right now. I’ve hit the wall, and yet I keep pushing myself forward, step after step. I keep trying to speak up, to be an advocate and an ally, to lift up voices that are stronger than mine, to look at the people I love and care about and try to open up new ways of seeing. I do it because the feeling of not speaking up is worse. But I’m bone-tired.

And I’m a middle class white woman in her thirties. I have little to complain about.

I’ve learned about compassion fatigue. Those of us whose jobs (or relationships, for that matter) rely on compassionate listening often find ourselves facing burn out. It’s a fact of the job. Our trainer in my last position, a brilliant and kind therapist, taught us this: the only way to refill that cup of empathy is by having someone empathetically listen to you. All the yoga and running and boundary setting in the world is a drop in the bucket compared to someone listening, really listening with genuine care. Why do you think so many social workers and other mental health professionals are in therapy?

This makes me think two things:

  1. My anger at anyone offering love as an answer is just that, fatigue at trying to thoughtfully, kindly, empathetically engage and connect about things I feel passionate about. All the comments about “colorblindness” and “coddled college kids” and “taking care of our own” have left me bone dry. I’ve drained my empathetic listening tank.
  2. I can imagine why whole groups of people, saddled with this lack of genuine care for generations might eventually get pretty fed up and start demanding something radically different.

And so, I find myself at a crossroads. As I read Steinbeck’s letter to his son (don’t think I don’t see the parallel here) this morning I thought, what I see all over social media and media in general, in my conversations and connections with friends and family, is a devolution into that first kind of love. I am feeling that kind of love now. Voiceless, irrelevant and weak. The love that will maybe move things forward one iota is the second kind, the kind that fills us up, makes us feel stronger and more courageous and inclined to spread it far and wide.

So, I am taking a break. I’m stepping away from those situations that draw me into an egotistical, self-centered sort of love. And I’m pulling close the situations, relationships and experiences that are the other kind, the kind that will fill me up, make me feel strong and courageous again so I can re-find my voice and keep being the advocate that I want to be.

For now, that’s all.