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Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Teaching Empathy (Part Two)

Sorry, actual seders just got in the way of writing about seders. When we last left off, Melissa was the camp pariah...

That night, the camp had a social. When I tried to speak to my friends, no one would respond. They wouldn't even look at me. They continued their conversations as if I wasn't standing right next to them. I cried and they ignored me. I went to my counselor, sobbing that I wanted to go back to our cabin and she didn't even glance at me. After about a half hour of sniveling in the corner, a counselor got on stage and said, "I'd like to welcome everyone to Camp High School's 10-year reunion! Can everyone have a seat?"

So we all played along and plopped onto the ground. The counselor smiled at us and continued with this completely bizarre speech since we were, as you know, at a camp social where we usually listened to music and then went outside and made-out behind the nurse's station with the guys from the boys' cabin. "It has been a crazy few years. We've had so many accomplishments. Alicia became the youngest person in space recently!"

Alicia laughed and everyone cheered except me since, as you can probably understand, I was pretty bitter in the moment.

"And Jason now owns his own computer company and Sarah is well on her way to becoming a US Senator--and maybe even president one day!" the counselor said. "We've also had some sad times too. As many of you know, we lost a few classmates in the past few years. Melissa, Micah, and Allison all contracted the H.I.V. virus and we lost them from complications due to AIDS. And we miss them a lot. Unlike some viruses, you can take precautions to not pass along this virus. Safe sex, for one thing, can help stop the spread of H.I.V. And we'll be talking about that a lot in these next few days now that we've kicked off this unit. Also, since H.I.V. is blood-borne, we'll be talking about behaviours that can transmit the virus that way. But most of all, we're going to spend this unit talking about how we treat people. And how myths keep us from interacting with other people in a sensitive way. And how a virus doesn't stop you from being a human with human emotions and human feelings. And to keep that in mind as you go through your life because with the rate with transmission, you probably will meet people as you grow older, if you do not already know someone now, who is H.I.V. positive."

And that's how the counselors kicked off our HIV/AIDS unit at my social action camp.

The counselors all knew prior to that day who would be chosen. The campers simply picked up on the treatment I was receiving from the counselors and mirrored it. My friends admitted that right before the social, a counselor told them to ignore me no matter what and they agreed to pretend they couldn't see me because they didn't want to piss off the counselor and receive the same treatment I had received that day. Apparently, I was "dead" prior to the reunion hence why no one could "see" me in the room. Lovely.

When I tell this story to people now, they always say something along the lines of "your camp was so fucked up" as many of you did in the comments section. Well, yes, in today's climate, you wouldn't be able to get away with that kind of lesson without receiving irate phone calls from 15 parents along with a few threats of lawsuits. But while it had some temporary fallout--about 8 hours worth of frustration and sadness--it had a quick resolution as my friends gathered back around me and I learned a (forgive the afterschool specialness of this phrase) valuable lesson within a safe space. This would not be the case for every child, but I'd like to believe that some brainstorming went on before they tried this at camp and children were chosen who would they believed would not be permanently damaged.

I think this kind of playacting can be an invaluable tool--similar to using dress-up to imagine ourselves a movie star or playing house to imagine ourselves a parent. As a child, we try on different personas to see which fit, and I don't think empathy should be exempt from that type of play if it is done in a safe space and a brief amount of time. I'm sure many of you will disagree, but these are my feelings on the topic. I learned the same lessons in empathy that many people need to learn the hard way as an adult by actually messing up in real life and saying something idiotic that destroys a relationship.

You can tell a person that someone who has been diagnosed as a carrier of this virus will feel regrets and scared and ill and a pariah. You can tell a person that someone with the virus will probably lose friends and be barred from activities and spend an inordinate amount of time alone. You can tell a person that someone who is H.I.V. positive will feel the weight of all of those myths and want to strangle another person for their stupidity when they either avoid interactions with them or offer out their opinion on something they know nothing about. Those are all things I think someone can intellectually know and understand. But it drives home the point so much clearer when you've felt the pain of being shunned. That day certainly increased my desire to be careful about transmission. That day certainly always plays in my mind when I meet someone who is H.I.V. positive and informs my response and behaviour.

There is obviously empathy you gain from going through the actual experience, but empathy can also be taught--either by thrusting someone into the feelings as was done to me at camp or by telling stories and asking someone to playact as Aurelia suggested in her comment. These experiences don't give people the intimate details of the landscape, but give them an overarching picture of the situation. To borrow an analogy from the writer, Michael Stein, it is the difference between learning the language and knowing the idioms. I think hearing stories can give you enough proficiency to move about the "country" awkwardly. I think feeling stories as I did at camp can give you enough proficiency to be able to truly understand what you're seeing when you move about the "country." Which is what is trying to be accomplished at a Pesach seder. I think living the stories can give you fluency that allow you to utilize the idioms of the situation.

For me, one of the main points of the seder is to feel not only what the Jews felt as they exited Egypt--the story is told with our point-of-view in mind--but also to feel the anguish of those who perished due to the Exodus. The Egyptians who drowned. The first-borns who dropped over dead. As Niobe pointed out, we don't rejoice at another person's downfall. And I think sometimes when we're teaching empathy, we're so focused on a single subject--a single person--that we forget that there are more people affected by a single situation. More people with intense feelings that need to be recognized and navigated.

I'm always impressed with people who can jump directly to that base level of empathy. Who can cross-empathize: take the feelings from one situation (being ostracized in middle school) and apply them to another situation (being a good listener for someone recently widowed). Not everyone can. Which is why exercises such as the Pesach seder exist.

It's not enough to simply tell someone "be empathetic" and have them know the right thing to say. They have to hear the Pesach story, place themselves emotionally in those shoes, and imagine what it would be like to wander the desert for 40 years. Of course, you can't really run an exercise for infertility as they did at my camp. I mean, what are you going to do? Slap a big "I" over a woman's cervix and make her leave it there for over a year while trying to get pregnant? Tell a man that he produces no sperm for three straight SAs and then surprise him with a "you're on Infertility Candid Camera" moment and have him realize that he was fertile all along? There really isn't a way to put people through the emotions that come with infertility. The loss of control, the loss of hope, the loss of life.

Empathy can be taught, seder-style, through stories and imagination as long as the receiver wants to change their behaviour and have that empathy inform their decisions. It can get them to a place where they don't need the proper response dictated to them, but they can produce that response naturally on their own. But not everyone truly wants it and not everyone is truly open to it despite what they say with their mouths. Their lack of openness to these ideas speak volumes. We need to want to have that change in order to have our hearts and minds changed by someone else's experience.

It's not enough for someone to tell me that I need to imagine myself leaving Egypt--I need to be open to that idea and want to be changed by the story. And if I am open to it, I believe that we can hear about ancestors leaving Egypt and feel for a moment like we are in that crowd, running with our basket of dough in a frantic attempt to get out of Egypt before the Pharoah changes his mind. At the same time, I can consider how it would feel to see the waters closing above my head and understanding in that moment that I'm about to drown. We can be ostracized at camp and remember that experience when we're hanging out with friends who are H.I.V. positive. That we can tell someone about our losses or the treatments or the decisions we've had to make and have them understand for a moment what it feels like to be on that table with your feet in those stirrups. To speak accordingly. To offer comfort accordingly. To understand and be empathetic because it is something internalized and not just told to us.


xavier2001 said...

All I can say is well said, you very clearly and eloquently have described many of my exact thoughts on the subject.

The only point of disagreement I have is who can survive not eating pasta for 8 days!!! ;)

Bea said...

I think your camp counsellor was quite clever (although I would also like to believe she picked her subjects carefully). I think it's a shame children are so much coddled these days that lessons such as this can't be taught. As you say, sooner or later life will teach its own lessons, and life is a lot less considerate than your school counsellor.

The point about having to be open to these lessons rings very true as well. There are too many people who are unwilling to believe there might be another side to the story, let alone listen to it and try to identify with it.

If people could only be taught to be slow to judge, the world would be a better place.


Stacie said...

I still think that was a rotten thing to do to a little kid.

megan said...

that was a great two-parter. thanks for sharing that story.
it *does* seem a bit harsh that you were in that situation for 8 long hours though...sometimes i do wish we could have similar exercise for infertility though. it would make some days a whole lot easier...

Dianne/Flutter said...

As always Mel, your blog entry was profound. I read it, thinking where is she going with this? It was beautiful. Empathy is something that I wish every human had mastered.

Reproductive Jeans said...

Not many words to say other than wow and thanks--that was very moving-thanks for sharing!

LIW (Lady In Waiting) said...

I think that that was a great exercise, one that I would like my nieces to experience (and children, when I finally find a way to become a mother!) I have heard of similar techniques used in high schools to explain how the Holocaust occurred - well, at least to demonstrate how easy it was for Germans to support the crazy and hateful propaganda being promoted by the Nazis.

TeamWinks said...

They certainly did a hell of a job teaching you empathy!

Foreverhopeful said...

I enjoyed reading this and thank you for sharing your story. I love how you said " We need to want to have that change in order to have our hearts and minds changed by someone else's experience and "To speak accordingly. To offer comfort accordingly. To understand and be empathetic because it is something internalized and not just told to us". Its the one thing I wished that I could get is empathy during the lowest moments of my infertility. I've lost so many friends because of their lack of it and people who just really didn't care because there life was good. Even people who love me and have seen me in pain, still can say the wrong thing because they have no idea how to put themselves in my shoes. I've found that people who have lost a loved one or who have suffered something deep, were better at it. Its because they could draw from their own experience and the emotions they felt during their own despair. I wish everyone would learn empathy and like Bea said, the world woud be a better place!

Aurelia said...


I'm sorry, I shouldn't have picked apart your Seder post. These issues hit a little close to home for some of us, especially me, I fully admit. I end up with a more visceral reaction than a logical one. *Sigh*

I know the counsellors picked people carefully, and you were okay. I guess this just rang very close to home for me because I witnessed a close friend, Louise, at a retreat be the one picked for a similar exercise, and it was a bad choice, and very bad one. She had a lot of other issues and the damage we saw in her later....i-yi-yi. Counsellors aren't psychiatrists, it's a big risk to take.

Plus, I'm not sure we can "teach" empathy to be honest. It's sort of something we have to acquire as small children by observing others, IMO. Like if kids see kindness modelled by their parents they imitate it. If not...

Which is why I prefer the model where we show how to positively act and help, so people aren't simply left open-mouthed and grasping for things to say. Just because even the most empathetic people can say bone-headed things.

Like me, the woman whose heart is in the right place, even when my feet are both stuck firmly in my mouth. :)

Adrienne said...

What a brilliant and memorable way to teach an important lesson. I think 8 hours may have been a bit much, but I get it.

And I agree that someone has to want to empathize. It's something that can't be forced. But I think it can be taught, given the right circumstances. Your experience at camp is proof of that.

Starfish said...

I think the sad commentary is that many people don't even realize that infertility is something you need to empathize. Most of the insensitivity I've been subject to is by people who don't even have a clue what I'm going through.

Too bad they don't have Infertility Empathy Camp - I've got a few people I'd like to slap some big I's on myself!!