the limits of empathy: eyes wide open, but not all the time

In light of the horror show taking place in Ottawa, this would be the perfect time to post notes from "Can We Stop the Harper Agenda," the big panel discussion at Marxism 2012. However, I'm waiting to get an audio file of the talk, which will greatly improve the post.

While I wait for that, I'll try my hand at two other pieces I've been thinking about for a long time.

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I recently wrote about two books - What Is the What and A Long Way Gone - that I recommended with warnings. Both are excellent and well worth reading, and both deal with highly disturbing subjects, including graphic depictions of atrocities and other violence. This led me to think about the choice to read or watch that kind of disturbing, difficult material - and the choice not to.

In the past, I've had no patience for people who refuse to deal with anything that might be upsetting or disturbing, people who seem to live in ignorance and denial, who steadfastly avoid anything that might pierce their bubble. I've been very critical and unsympathetic to this mindset. I realize this is not very generous or understanding of me, but my own empathy doesn't seem to extend that far.

Here are two stories that may help explain further.

My friend Randy, and 9/11

In the late 1990s, a friend of mine was dying of AIDS. We had lost touch over the years, but when we reconnected, I learned he was HIV-positive. Soon after that, his status became full-blown AIDS. We stayed in close touch, often writing letters, even though we were in the same city, and I visited him when I could.

I volunteered to be one of his "care partners" for chemo treatments, so often our visits were tied to his health needs. Eventually Randy had to make some terrible decisions about how far to go with treatment - weighing some horrific side effects against small extensions of his time on earth.

At the end, I continued to visit him, each time knowing it could be the last time I saw him. If you've ever known anyone at the end-stage of a fatal disease, you know it's not an easy thing to witness. But it seemed pretty clear to me that Randy needed company. I figured if he could suffer through all that, the least I could do was sit at his bedside.

Randy and I had a mutual friend named J. J and Randy were very close. Towards the end of Randy's life, J stopped visiting Randy because, he said, it was "too horrible". J would shudder and say, "I can't take it. It's just so disgusting."

In the last week of Randy's life, J told Randy he was out of town and couldn't visit. They spoke on the phone a few times. Everyone knew J was not out of town, and I'm sure Randy knew, too.

I lost a lot of respect for him during those weeks. His choice disgusted me. And when J spoke so eloquently at Randy's memorial service, I silently deplored him.

I was angry, and I shared that with another friend. She said, "Everyone is different, has different capabilities, different strengths. J simply wasn't able to be there."

It was difficult - no, it was impossible - for me to see J's choice through such a generous lens. Wasn't able to? I thought. Why? What did he think would happen to him? He would feel upset, and he'd get over it. Randy didn't have that option.

I had a similar reaction, although less intense, in New York City after September 11, 2001, when many people I knew refused to visit the site of the attacks. I couldn't understand how you could be so physically close to the event, how you could know so many people who were directly impacted, how you could know that workers were still toiling in the rubble, and not go pay your respects in person. They said, "It would upset me too much".

I've been told this is harshly judgmental of me, and part of me agrees. But the rest of me continues that ungenerous view.

"It would upset me" meets my own limitations

I've heard very uninformed and ignorant people say they never read newspapers or watch TV news because "it's so depressing". And I'm sure we've all known people who will not read a book or see a movie that deals with any disturbing or upsetting subject matter. As I've said, I don't look on this very kindly.

At the same time, I have limits. I absolutely do seek out books and movies that help me learn about the world, help me face the human condition with wide-open eyes, help me learn about experiences that I will never have. But... I've also come up against my own limits.

I've learned that I have extremely low tolerance to stories involving cruelty to animals. A segment of a Cormac McCarthy novel that I read more than 10 years ago still haunts me. All these years later, it hurts to think about it. I once saw a puppy get run over by a car - the speeding driver never even slowed down. The puppy didn't die immediately, and I swear to you I can hear still hear its high-pitched screams, can still see its agony in my mind's eye as if it were yesterday.

And so, I avoid books and movies that will trigger this reaction. There's a famous documentary called "Earthlings" about how animals are used by humans. It's supposed to be great, but I've refused to see it, and probably never will.

Similarly, I've been hearing about a movie called "The Invisible War," about rape and sexual assault within the U.S. military. It's supposed to be an excellent film, and grueling. I already know I won't see it. Being a rape survivor myself, I fear it will be seriously triggering for me.

In both instances, I truly feel like "I can't". So is that any different than when J said he "couldn't" visit Randy?

If I've recognized this reaction in myself and imposed certain limits, why can't I feel more generous towards other people's self-imposed limitations?

Is it, perhaps, a matter of degree? Is there a difference between people who understand and engage in the world as it is, but also choose to protect themselves from certain stressors, and people who routinely hide from reality?

Or is that just my own rationalization?

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