Extraordinary Times

This post describes, in part, the effects of a degenerative neurological condition called Huntington’s Disease. Any negative behavior on the part of my wife should be attributed to that condition. Any negative behavior on the part of myself should be attributed to my need for God’s ongoing grace.

Janet continues doing well on her medicine in terms of sleep but emotionally things are getting worse. Apparently, saying just about anything will now earn me an invitation to, “go to Hell”. I’m ashamed to say that one time I replied, “Too late, I’m already here!”, and then had to apologize. She is also getting increasingly sensitive to loud talk – which strikes me as odd for someone who is (a) half Italian and (b) loves to watch political programming on TV.

In other news, the world’s obsession with the Coronavirus caused some interesting issues this week. I know that by now it’s almost a cliche, but we really couldn’t find any toilet paper. In addition, after last Sunday our church decided to move our services completely online. As the situation stands now, where we are in Texas, all the restaurants are closed except for takeout. The schools are closed for the remainder of the year, and I loosed a rant on the world via Facebook decrying the number of “simpering idiots” in my country. It has been a long week.

To state the obvious, we are living in unusual times, and such times call for unusual actions. I typically use this space to talk about matters related to grieving and caregiving – particularly in the context of neurodegenerative diseases. However, I think that the time has come to have a conversation that looks at this calling to care in a broader context. And the place to start that conversation is with the question of empathy.

Empathy (noun) – The ability to understand and share the feelings of another person.

For the past 3 or 4 decades at least, we have been bombarded, as a culture, by a plethora of self-help books and programs that (whether religious or secular) all preach the same basic message: “Take care of yourself, no one else will.” In fact, this idea has become so prevalent that to feel in any other way is sometimes seen as a pathology, an illness to be treated and “cured”. We are told that it is not up to us to worry about others – we have “professionals” that will do that job for us.

History shows that this philosophy can survive pretty well as long as the majority of the people who believe it are not experiencing any major problems themselves. Unfortunately, that is not the situation that we are in now. While we are not responsible for the virus itself, we are in the middle of a mess that is, to a large extent, of our own making. We have lived for so long thinking that we can depend on surrogates to take care of the needy, sick and infirm that we have forgotten that Jesus said those were things that we were to be doing ourselves. Then suddenly, the load gets too great, and the systems which we created so we didn’t have to get our hands dirty, collapse. I wonder how many people will die because neighbors have forgotten how to care for each other.

Another challenge is that going back to the 1930s authors such as Ayn Rand have taught that selfishness is good and caring for others is bad because it makes them weak, and in turn makes the society that harbors them, weak. The result is a kind of functional eugenics that is based on one’s ability to perform, rather than their DNA. I have even heard modern authors speak in favor of banning all charities, public and private, for this very reason. In addition, there are cities here in the US, where giving to the homeless is actually against the law. I wonder how many more people will die because those in power deem them to be of no further use to society at large.

Take those two sources of mortality together and you will certainly have a very large number, and a number that will continue growing indefinitely, unlike the deaths from the Coronavirus which will eventually subside.

So what are we to do? What is the solution? Those of us who care for people with neurological conditions have, I believe, a unique perspective on this problem. The source of this perspective is that we deal with people on a daily basis that can be obstinate and self-centered, and are absolutely convinced that they are in the right – just like the people who irrationally go into stores and buy up all the toilet paper, hand sanitizer or food. We know that the way to effectively deal with irrational people starts with empathy to understand on a deep and personal level, the feelings that drive their irrational behavior. In this way, empathy serves as the glue that holds society together and keeps it from degenerating into a mindless mob.

It’s time for those of us who are caregivers to step out of the shadows and start talking about what we do, and why we do it. We need to start making the case for empathy, for caring, and for being truly human. But that empathy needs to be built on a firm foundation, else it will become just one more “flavor” of pop psychology that is all the rage today, but is quickly forgotten tomorrow. The only foundation that really matters is reality. For example, the founders of the United States, started this way,

“We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights…”

In this opening to the Declaration of Independence, the authors laid a powerful foundation based on the “self-evident” reality that we live in a created world. And moreover, the Creator who is responsible for this world is still fully involved with the creation, as seen through the on-going endowment of gifts to all of humankind. Oh, and don’t miss the threat to tyrants that is implicit in the word “inalienable”.

When you start from this same place, empathy becomes yet another gift from our creator God to help us draw closer to each other. But beyond that bare definition, what does it really mean to be empathetic? And how do you learn to be more empathetic?

Taking the second question first, there is actually a lot of discussion going on as to whether people even can learn empathy. Some say “Yes” because it’s just a skill like any other human skill. Others say “No” asserting that when you were born you were either empathetic or you’re not. My view of the matter is somewhat different from both, I would say that everyone is empathetic to one degree or another because the ability to feel empathy is something that is built into our human nature as part of our humanity. In the past I’ve written about what I referred to as “fingerprints” that God left on our being when we are created, I believe this is another one. So perhaps the better question might be how do I learn to express empathy more and not continue to suppress who God meant me to be?

The key is a mindful practice of the definition given above, combined with prayer. Growth in this aspect of life doesn’t happen by itself. You need to be intentional in your daily interactions with others, looking for their needs and asking for God’s guidance. Above all, being empathetic does not mean to simply feel sorry for someone, empathy is actually feeling and understanding the emotions that they are feeling. Likewise, empathizing with someone does not mean automatically that you agree with them – just that you understand where the feelings are coming from. In a way, this is sort of like the distinction that we draw when dealing with negative behavior from our HD loved one. We say things like, “It’s not your mum saying all those bad things, it’s the HD.” In the same way, empathy allows us to understand and recognize the feelings behind the behaviors of people with whom we have profound differences. This clarity, in turn, allows us to see that they aren’t a horrible person but rather that they are fearful, or afraid, or injured in some way.

It seems that you can’t turn on the TV without hearing someone decry the “lack of civility” that someone else (it’s always someone else) is causing. However, the real problem is more often a lack of empathy, which leaves open the door for the demonization and judging of people. Whether this lack of empathy is the result of an inability to care, or apathy over the need for caring, these last few weeks have demonstrated that the reason doesn’t really matter. Losing the ability to empathize with others will kill us all.

In Christ, Amen ☩

A prayer for when you are feeling angry…

“Blessed are You, Lord God, King of the Universe. It is right that I should at all times and in all circumstances bless You for Your continued involvement in the world that You created. But today I want to bless you especially for giving us the ability to empathize with others and in so doing, help to bear one other’s burdens. In this work we have the ultimate example of Jesus to guide us, who came down from heaven, and taking on the body of a man, lived a life of empathy. Show me how to follow this example, use me to heal the culture of fear, hopelessness and death that surrounds us. Amen”