Windows and Mirrors - E is for Empathy - Florence Sprague

How do you feel about laundry? It may seem a bit silly, but I can’t do laundry without feeling lucky. The many historical novels I read in my youth made a great impression on me. I feel grateful that I do not have to haul water, heat water, make soap, scrub on a washboard, or even feed things through a wringer as I sometimes did as a child before hanging things on the line. No, I just toss things in the washing machine with magic cleaning agents and then toss most of them into the drier. Hardly anything even needs to be ironed! And when new socks are cheap, who mends much? All the tasks of Monday through Wednesday can be compressed into an evening and multi-tasked through. Yep, sorting socks aside, laundry today is a relative breeze. I feel great sympathy and respect for the women who did all of that labor.

I don’t have to have been there to know that it was a lot of work, much of it unpleasantly hot, sweaty, potentially dangerous and very time consuming. I can imagine it.

While my imagination is engaged there is a room that I would like to tip toe in to very quietly, with eyes downcast, and voice gentle. There have been so many horrific, shocking, incomprehensible acts of violence in recent years that the grief in the country can at times be almost palpable. The violence has moved from state to state and so many families and communities have been touched by random, untimely loss. I respect the pain, anger and fear.

And yet, it is just this grief that can connect us to others around the world.  Whether we are mourning thousands lost on 9/11/2001, or two on 12/07/2017, when the most acute pain has been muted by time that very pain can give an insight.

I have had the immense good fortune to not have been directly touched by this type of trauma and so I say that I am tip toeing into this room, in part because and I also cannot know as I write whether wounds will be reopened by new tragedies in the space between my writing and your reading, and because we all have different connections and thus different wounds from past tragedies.  Our distress has leaped from Las Vegas to New York to Sutherland Springs, too quickly.

Every death, whether by illness, accident, war or other violence, brings loss to those who knew and loved that person. The challenge is to recognize the loss of others in the shadow of one’s own loss.

After my mother died many years ago I was reading a self-help book. One anecdote has stuck in my mind, though the details seem to be blurring. The author recounts working through her emotions about her divorce with a psychologist. She learns that her counselor has a child dying of cancer and feels like she shouldn’t burden this man, whose pain she ranked as more serious, with her pain. He appreciated her concern but told her each person’s pain is valid, important and separate and deserves respect. It is not a competition, nor is there a finite supply of pain. So if I mention another area of suffering and loss it is not meant to diminish losses here.

This country has been at war for the last 16 years. It has ceased to be constantly under our noses as the lead in the news, but it continues. Close to 5000 American military personnel have been killed in Iraq and close to 2500 in Afghanistan and thousands more have suffered life changing injuries- lost limbs or traumatic brain injuries. It feels such a waste.

And yet during that time more than 173,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed.  Explosions continue to occur in markets and on busy streets. The losses to families and communities are unfathomable. A whole generation of children has grown up knowing nothing but war on their doorstep. As a parent can you imagine that?

It can be instructive to reflect about how our troubles fit into the troubles of the world. We do this not to feel guilty or anxious, but to remind ourselves how traumas disrupt families, communities, nations. To seek empathy. One can’t take all of the troubles of the world upon  oneself, that is unhealthy ( ), but one can stay aware. Pain is not the exception in this troubled world, it is the norm. Empathy means not taking sides reflexively, but recognizing that you too would flee a war zone, you too would be angry and frustrated when your city was destroyed, you too would grieve and ache at each death and too many deaths overwhelm reason. Things fall apart.

And that is all that I want to tip toe in to say. Every soldier, every civilian, every person who dies by violence, is mourned and is a loss to society. The losses in this country are grievous, much too frequent and with no endpoint in sight. But they are not the only losses. Let the good of empathy be one offshoot of too much conflict and evil. Can we stem the tide of social disintegration?