Empathy is Worth the Effort

(Note: I am not a mental health professional.  The statements in this blog post are based on personal observation and experience.)

Most of us — if we are decent in the first place, and we haven’t become jaded — were horrified to hear about Monday night’s attack in Manchester.  The target was a concert venue which attracted young pop music fans.

This morning I found a friend’s post on Facebook, expressing his personal reaction to the tragedy.  I typed a comment suggesting Dante should have created a Circle of Hell for terrorists who target young people.

I hope my friend read that comment the way it was intended.  I didn’t mean to put anger before concern for the kids and families who were trapped in the middle of a terrorist’s own hell last night.  Still, the attack was detestable, and of course I was angry.

This morning I posted something on Twitter which is meant to be supportive.  Although there’s no hashtag (so the post’s reach is limited), it has alternating heart and Union Jack images with the statement that people are stronger than the cowards who hurt them.

The statement in that Twitter post is a generalization.  Some innocent people who hurt no one are fragile, and even when an injury isn’t fatal a fragile person might be defeated.

If we want to ponder this middle brow argument, we must look at every definition of human strength, and if we do that for very long our observations become pointless.  Usually, a debate on this topic just takes us further away from whatever prompted the discussion in the first place.  It’s like a ball of yarn that unrolls down a flight of stairs without anyone having the motivation to stop it.

(Note: If you want to see an example of how extreme the proverbial ball of yarn thing can get, watch a 1951 movie titled The Well.  Wait for the scene in which someone asks, “What kid?”)

This morning’s Twitter post was mainly a reaction to rootless individuals who believe there’s a vague or concrete reward waiting for them if they can pull off just the right type of cruelty.  Selfishness is not a form of strength.  Whether an act of cruelty is terrorism, bullying or something else, it’s an effort to get control over one’s own circumstances by creating an out of control situation for someone else.  It’s pathetic.

My cliched Twitter post is an effort to show support for frightened people in general.  I don’t think I’d say “You are stronger than the cowards who hurt you” directly to someone’s face, though.  If I were vulnerable that way, hearing someone say those exact words would sound mediocre.  I’d probably have to work up some of my own empathy to put it in perspective and dismiss the remark as a social gaffe from someone with good intentions.

One of the definitions of empathy is putting oneself in another’s position.  We should always try to gauge how we would react to well-intended efforts if we were feeling another person’s pain.  That isn’t easy, and it isn’t always possible.  Not all of us have experienced the same crises.  Many of us have never been through the death of a spouse, and even more of us have never lost a child.  We also have to consider that each person reacts differently to a crisis.  Not every survivor from last night’s Manchester tragedy is feeling the same emotions.

If we’re physically close enough to a tragic event, sometimes all we can do is use restraint with what we say and be ready to listen.  Be ready to be discreet, too.  Although a traumatized acquaintance’s venting may be upsetting, we must resist the impulse to vent our own angst by repeating any of it.  Treat it all as confidential, except when you must speak up to prevent another tragedy, such as a suicide.

If there’s anything practical we can offer and we’re ready to get involved, that’s the time to ask what we can do.  Last night, some concertgoers were stranded because an underground station was closed for security reasons.  At least one nearby hotel offered shelter, and strangers — no predators among them, I hope — used social media to invite survivors into their homes.

All of this requires a careful judgment call, which includes resisting the temptation to scapegoat anyone.  Revenge acts, such as islamophobic violence, are just one more evil.  Don’t engage in those acts, and don’t tolerate them.  Revenge against entire segments of society escalate the cruelty.

We make mistakes that we can learn from, and in the meantime we can only hope we help people more than we hurt them.

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