Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Empathy for the Devil

Stacy Petrie“You don’t know how I feel! NOBODY knows how I feel!”

Remember Rob Petrie’s brother Stacy (played by Dick Van Dyke’s real brother, Jerry) yelling that whenever anyone told him they knew how he felt? Have you ever had to deal with that person for real?

I have, and it gets old real quick. People who feel that way seem to be saying that no matter what you’ve experienced, no matter what you’ve thought, or how much you’ve studied a situation or an issue, you can’t possibly know how they feel unless you’re exactly like them.

Technically, I suppose that’s true. Unless I’m your clone and have experienced every single thing that you have, lived every moment the exact same way you have, I probably can’t fully comprehend how you feel.

That doesn’t mean that I am not sympathetic to your situation, or that I don’t have empathy for what you have been through. It doesn’t mean that I lack the intellectual capacity to comprehend how your experiences might have made you feel, or how they might have colored your perception of the world around you. It also doesn’t mean that I have no right to comment on a situation merely because I am not the same stripe as the people involved. I may not be a child in Africa, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t be horrified by the perils that the majority of them face, and that certainly doesn’t mean that I can’t recommend donations to wonderful organizations like Nothing But Nets or Doctors Without Borders because of the aid that they provide to these kids.

EmpathyI have opinions on racial prejudice and bigotry; are my opinions and thoughts on such subjects invalid because I am a white woman? Am I not allowed to say that I deplore such attitudes without hearing that I have no right to speak of such things because “NOBODY knows how we feel!” Do I not get to call people out on their racist remarks because there is simply no way I can possibly speak with any sort of authority or even voice my condemnation of such behavior because it hasn’t been my experience? If I speak out on such things, am I merely playing lip service to ending prejudice, am I trying to prove my progressive credentials, and am I busily congratulating myself because I voted for Barack Obama, thereby personally solving every prejudice problem in the country?

You know one of the things that has been my experience? It’s that sometimes people have such a Sequoia-sized chip on their shoulder that they can’t recognize when someone is on their side. Maybe it’s easier for them to say that NOBODY knows how they feel! and that no one can possibly relate, that no one can ever truly support them because no one else is like them. Maybe years of being the victim has left them unable to realize that not everyone wants to paint them into that corner...and maybe by their continued obstinacy in refusing to recognize that someone just wanted to be a friend to them, and was willing to discuss such matters—without being unfairly accused as being some sort of racist—they have effectively painted themselves into that very same corner, all on their own. You lost a friendship because of your unreasonable accusations? Congratulations. You’re a victim.


  1. Sometimes I wonder if when people respond like that, they're giving something away: Maybe they don't want the sympathy, afterall, but instead just want attention. If that's the case, when you say "I know how you feel," they might resent it because suddenly whatever they were complaining about becomes less about them.

  2. ...not to mention a matching sense of self on the other. You have to have a good helping of ego to think that you are alone in dealing with troubles, both general and specific. Too often feelings of jealousy and envy obscure for many what to me is obvious -- winner do what losers don't!!

    Having to face the irriducible fact that where you are in life is the consequence of you own decisions, is one of the hardest things to do that no one ever tells you about.

  3. For some people. it's a way to turn the conversation back to themselves.

  4. For most, it is so much easier to be the victim than look in the mirror and see their true self. Some go through their whole life and never do. Sad.

  5. My I suggest a further resources to learn more about empathy and compassion.
    The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
    The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

    Let's Find 1 Million People Who Want to Build a Culture of Empathy and Compassion

    Also, we invite you to post a link to your article about empathy to our Empathy Center Facebook page.

  6. I think most people are trying to show some compassion. When people are hurting, words don't always express their sorrow for the other individual too well but if they experienced a similiar situation........yes, people say "I know how you feel". I'm not saying it is the the right choice of words......

  7. Beth, I try to emphasize that everything is connected to derail people who seek to divide, no matter what "side" they may be on. Often their own separated sense of self, or their sense of feeling solely entitled to champion something, can taint their ability to see issues clearly and empathize with others.

  8. So true!! I know so many people who have that "sequoia-sized chip on their shoulder." And at the opposite end of the spectrum are those people who think they understand "everything" about everyone!


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