Failures in Empathy

I am feeling angry today and I don’t know what to do with my anger. First, I’ve struggled for years to empathize and relate to people in the Boomer generation. Both of my parents fit into this generation so it was always destined to be the one I would have the hardest time with, but seeing multiple neighbors and community members playing games with social distancing by forming what look like extended tailgates is setting me over the edge. We shut down our entire society in large part to protect this generation, and the “thanks” I am witnessing in return is an adolescent belief of invincibility. I cannot muster a lot of grace for someone who purposefully puts themselves in danger when they would seem to be at a place where they should have had enough life experience to know better.

To top it off, I took my dog to the park and finally found a large open space where we could walk without any chance (or so I thought) of running into another person. Right as we were making our way between reservoir areas, this absolute f*ckhead got out of his car and starting hitting golf balls in our direction of travel, effectively blocking off a vast area of land from us. The park was most definitely not a golf course. I had a lot of nasty thoughts go through my head because it seemed intentionally sadistic–“hey, here’s this person trying to enjoy a walk, let me ruin it!” He got in his car and drove away after I’d walked quite a distance across the parking lot in the other direction.

I am someone who wishes bad things on those who are intentionally cruel. I want them to suffer. On an intellectual level, I know that this is where grace is supposed to enter the picture, I’m supposed to think of the times I’ve been mean on purpose and therefore empathize with that sentiment. I can think of a few, but I generally try to lighten other people’s load in life, not to add to it. I make many mistakes and react with impatience, but I do not go out of my way to mess with someone trying to, for example, enjoy their day. I want justice for those who are victimized by the sadism of the powerful; I would go further and say I lust for it.

But, stepping back, I know my desires are too concrete and too rigid. They lack the nuance of awareness of the interwoven systems within our society. For example, idiotic leaders who tell their acolytes that social distancing is impinging on their “freedom” to get sick and die in service to America’s “economy” (aka the rich and powerful) are in part to blame for the poor decisions of some Boomers to treat the shelter-in-place as a joke. The idea that the thinly-veiled threat of violence cis white men can hold towards people like me who are queer (as well as those who are PoC, poor and so forth) is not limited to one human specimen who decided his “recreation” included obstructing my freedom of movement, but is embedded in the patriarchal, heterosexist white supremacy inherent in American society. I can acknowledge those truths intellectually, but I still wanted respond aggressively to the flaunting of privilege and ignorance I witnessed. Once I calm myself after episodes like this, it usually leads me to redouble my efforts at constructive change, but, if I’m being totally honest, I do truly savor the schadenfreude that results when the powerful get what’s coming to them.

Self-Reflection on Injustice (Today’s Daily Remembrance)

Today’s Daily Remembrance card asked me to ponder what I’ve learned from experiences of injustice. I think that there is a primary lesson that I have absorbed, which is mostly in terms of how I want to treat others. I also believe this is a topic for which there is much left for me to learn.

The main injustices I’ve experienced in my life are profound experiences of betrayal. I was sexually abused by my father when I was a child (as well as a few other male relatives of his). My mother witnessed his abuse and did nothing to stop it. She abused me herself on one occasion. My faith community was not aware of my experience, but shaped my worldview to cause me to believe that I am the defective person because of the anger and bitterness I continue to harbor towards my family. Finally, many of my personal relationships have ended because I perceive the person to invalidate the fallout from the trauma I experienced and/or to dismiss the truth of who I am in various aspects of my identity.

As a result of these experiences, I’ve deepened my commitment to the following principles: (1) believing survivors, (2) educating myself about the needs of people who are oppressed and advocating for their rights and (3) working to have those to whom I have an obligation in terms of social roles (in terms of my job) and/or those who I deem to be safe people feel validated and treated with integrity. I also attempt to own my part in conflicts so that, even if I cannot continue in relationship with someone because they’ve betrayed my trust, they know that I do not hold them responsible for my own issues.

I suppose that part of the lesson I continue to need to learn in relation to injustice is to acknowledge that I feel extremely stuck when someone does not own their part in a situation and refuses to apologize to me. I don’t ask people for apologies as I think they are likely to be insincere, but maybe I need to try. I cling to anger far longer than the real-life situation dictates as a way to protect myself from feelings of grief and pain at being harmed. I am unsure of how to let go in situations where forgiveness cannot be offered because no responsibility was taken. The ownership I need to take here is: “I don’t know how to move past this because you haven’t seemed to recognize that your actions harmed me nor have you apologized for your part in this situation.”

The other aspect of experiencing injustice with which I continue to struggle is calling it out in the moment it happens. I recently had a friend act in a way I perceived as lacking gender inclusivity. I was able to share a response that stated my point of view in a palatable way, and immediately felt calmer when my friend responded in kind. I suspect that getting out my thoughts and feelings in the moment might allow the other person to correct course before more severe relationship damage has occurred. I tend to dissociate when these incidents happen which then often prevents me from doing so. That’s another place of ownership: “I responded from a traumatized place and wasn’t able to give you an opportunity in the moment to realize the effect your actions had on me.”

It feels so good to write out the sentences of taking ownership over my responses to instances of being hurt by another person where my betrayal-injustice buttons are getting pushed. I can imagine myself being better equipped to respond effectively to someone who said them to me if I had harmed them and had not come to terms with the harm I’d caused them. At the same time, I am immensely capable of feeling guilt and apologizing to people, so I don’t know that I need to hear these phrases as much as I need to utter them to others. How has injustice affected you in your life? What have you learned from it? What statements might help you address experiences of it in your life?

After the Fire (In the Cards)

Today’s In an Open Hand card draw was the Dampen card. This card centers on releasing anger and noticing where it might be transforming into grief. Specifically, the card invites a consideration of accepting disappointments.

My experience of anger in relation to issues that affect people other than solely myself tends to be in reaction to injustice, for example, in considering issues that relate to a societal level of unfairness and inequality. I often cycle in and out of rage, uncertain as to whether my energy is best spent fighting to right a wrong or in uplifting those who are working to create equity. There is likely a place for both experiences that I hope to reach.

My personal rage is of the same thread, but is harder for me to channel into a productive series of actions. When someone harms or disappoints me, I notice my contribution to the issue and then feel stuck as to whether or not it is fair to blame the other person for their role in the situation. I tend to withdraw from the person who let me down as a way to manage my emotions, because my experiences of directly confronting those who have hurt me very rarely leads to genuine contrition and a sense of my needs being cared about. There is no forgiveness possible when the other person refuses to own their actions. My anger, then, seems futile, and my disappointment invalid.

One query the Dampen card poses is about what needs to burn out on its own. This is the only path through my personal anger that I’ve found–to simply allow time to pass and my attention to drift so that, eventually, the slights I’ve endured feel less intense. New growth will replace the old, charred heartwood of connection that was destroyed through hurtful actions. The ashes, though, feel like they accumulate in the low-lying areas, creating a landscape with divots of barren in my heart. Each flame-up of anger takes more than it leaves and each re-growth is more sparse than the one that preceded it. It is the area in which I feel most helpless and hopeless as a trauma survivor. “Try again!” is weak courage when I know how high the risk of conflagration runs. How do you handle your anger and disappointment? What keeps you seeking connection even after the failure and ruin of a close relationship?