Empathy for the Cultural Ulcer

Today, a friend was was talking to me about how completely Alberto Gonzalez was screwing up, and I had the actual experience of feeling physically sick to my stomach.

Sure, I've felt sick to my stomach (a lot) when I read about/watched Gonzo's exploits. Or W's exploits, or Cheney's, or Rove's, or Snow's, or, or, or . . . . . . but today, it was a different kind of sick.

I actually had this moment of empathy. I remembered what it was like to work for a psychotic fucking boss who told you to do things that were obviously and clearly wrong/illegal/unethical/wrong/wrong/wrong, but from whose reality it seemed impossible to disengage, even while knowing that eventually, the shit was going to hit the fan.

I really don't want to feel empathy for any of them -- not a one of them -- as far as I'm concerned (rationally), they've made their beds and can lie in them. (Luckily for me, my spiritual beliefs are such that I am certain that they will actually lie in those beds, eventually, in this life or the next.)

But I did have this moment -- just a moment, mind you -- when I remembered that sick, hopeless feeling of knowing that I had become embroiled in an absolutely corrupt system. That time when I walked around in a permanent state of adrenal-shock and angst.

Here's a personal story: When I was 21, I worked as a gas-station attendant. It was one of the several jobs I did then, to "make ends meet" (what ends? meet where? as Eddie Izzard would say). My "boss" went from station to station that she managed (she was a "dyke", so I trusted her -- ha! ha! stupid me!), and was dipping from the till at every station she managed. She would tell me to short-change and over-charge customers to make up the difference. It drove me nuts. I actually put money out of my own pocket into the till to cover the difference at times, before I passed it on to the next co-worker.

I lasted about 4 months before I "turned her in" to the regional manager. I was fired. She stayed on.

Here's what prompted my empathy tonight: In those four months, I experienced a huge amount of internal conflict, physical and emotional suffering, perpetual angst, and "red-alert" adrenal states (constantly being on the verge of being "found out" can really fuck with your adrenalin quotient).

And that was a gas-station in the middle of bum-fuck nowhere, that probably did, at best, maybe $500.00 worth of business every day (remember, gas was $.59/gallon in those days).

I was trying, tonight, to imagine what it must be like to know that you're lying, and that your boss is lying, and your boss' bosses are lying, and that what is at stake is not $500/day in gas-station receipts, but billions of dollars/day and thousands of lives/day -- and I thought: You would either have to be completely disassociated from any human/sensing part of yourself (a distinct possibility, and, if true, very, very sad), or in a complete state of ongoing panic and terror (a distinct possibility, and if true, very,very sad).

Please don't mistake my empathy for excusing these people from their actions and choices. I do not excuse them, any more than I excuse myself for participating in a corrupt system for 4 months, even though I thought I "had to" in order to survive.

I want to develop my ideal of compassionate accountability -- to hold myself and others accountable for their choices, while never forgetting that we are human beings (and by this, I don't mean simply discounting "bad"behavior as "human nature", but understanding that we are animals distinctly focused on survival, and simultaneously capable of sublime transcendence from a state of mere survival).

It's very difficult for me to imagine the "humans" behind the masks that I see presented at senate and house hearings, at press conferences, campaign stops, and pundit-fests, but I think that it is essential that I continue to attempt to do so -- not so that I can be a "good" person, but from a very selfish point of view -- so that I am not scared shitless.

When I was 14, a friend's mother (who was known in our little town as a "loose woman" because her children's father was not around, and a "drunk" because she actually didn't hide her drinking) gave me some very good advice: "Hon, if you're ever afraid of anyone, just think about them sitting on the pot, taking a shit."

Posted byPortlyDyke at 11:12 PM  


Emily said... July 27, 2007 at 7:53 AM  

Empathy - true, real empathy and not some lip service to "compassion" - is something that distinguishes the true liberal from the conservative.

Empathy doesn't require that we forgive them for what they've done. It doesn't require that we eschew punishment for them.

But it does require an acknowledgement that the situation is more complex than purely good vs. evil.

Sometimes being empathetic is a hard, hard thing. But it's always better.

Thanks for the great post!

Mrs. B said... July 27, 2007 at 8:40 AM  

I agree with emily. Your empathy is what seperates you from those which you feel for. "They" don't seem to have any empathy, or if they do it appears to be manufactured for a photo shoot. I am proud of your empathy. I am disgusted by those who you have empathy for.


Phydeaux Speaks said... July 27, 2007 at 10:54 AM  

emily expressed my sentiments perfectly.

Another wonderful post, PD!

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