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.

Set in Stone (Today’s Simple Pleasure)

The local museum I visited today holds a collection of stone carvings. Most of them are from China and are composed of jade. After touring the exhibit, I’ve decided to share my self-reflections in this post.

Even though I care about sustainability, I struggle to purchase used items. Part of my resistance is the leftovers of a childhood spent in poverty where much of our food was bought after it had expired and our clothes were pre-worn. I also hesitate because of the provenance of items; I do not know to which scenes they’ve born witness over the years. I felt this especially in viewing items that were thousands of years old. Who else had looked at them and touched them? Were they used for mundane purposes, or had they spent their existence as sacred objects, used only in ceremony? How did they come to be at this museum; were they looted or stolen from the people whose ancestors created them? In a few cases, the museum was able to provide the entire story of the object, which allowed me to feel less conflicted as I appreciated them.

The items I found most appealing at this museum were what I first took to be paintings but learned were “micro-mosaics” made of tiny, individually-fitted glass and stone pieces. The level of detail was astonishing. When I found some modern versions for sale in the gift shop, I was tempted but the price tags kept me from indulging.

My other favorite was a collection of meteorites. I’d first seen meteorites at an exhibit in Colorado and could not get over how amazing it felt to view an item that had come from “outer space.” The museum I visited today had a smaller collection, but one of the rocks was sliced open, revealing an inner geometric, metallic structure that appeared very sci-fi to me.

My final stop was the gift shop where I purchased the malachite box photographed for this post. The person who was staffing the shop was very elderly and struggled in opening the cases for me to look at it, so I bought it as much out of guilt as I did for pleasure. I didn’t even stop to consider where it came from until I got home and saw that the sales clerk had added a small slip that gave information about the piece. It noted that it originated from the Congo. I immediately felt my stomach drop as I realized there was little likelihood that it had been mined, crafted and sold to me in an unbroken supply route of ethical, fair-trade practices, given the poverty and violence in this area of the world. A little research confirmed my suspicions.

I do not want to become someone who is performative and self-righteous in their social activism, who makes a point of noting how everything in their house is second-hand, environmentally-friendly and/or up-cycled (I was around people like this last month and let me tell you…). I also do not want to be someone who takes their privilege for granted and who consumes without consciousness of the human and environmental impact of their behavior. At the minimum, I want to purchase locally when I can. This includes grand plans for visiting many art fairs and farmer’s markets next year. I also want to, when I act without thinking as I did today, step back and educate myself on the back story.

Some items, such as the stone carvings I found today, outlast generation after generation of people, in part because they were deemed valuable and worthy of preservation. I want my actions to reflect the sacred trust we are given in the provisions of the Earth, so that the objects I enjoy are, whenever possible, ethically-obtained, cherished emblems and not stolen pieces of another’s culture or environmentally-damaging, mindless waste. What is your relationship with purchasing and consumption? How do you feel about hand-me-downs versus new purchases? How much attention do you pay to the origins of your treasures?