Tuesday night I waited anxiously by my cell phone for nine hours while my husband trekked home and eventually abandoned his stuck car in the snow and ice. It was a pretty stressful day. And we were some of the luckier ones.
It was a pretty stressful day(s) for lots of people.
And yet, their stress is met with laughter by more than half the country. And not just “oh that’s funny” laughter (that would be bad enough)—it’s bitter, cutting laughter. It’s “serves you right, you idiots” laughter.
Now I could go on about the reasons for the situation, about the cars we drive and the roads we have—I could go on about the hungry babies without diapers and the elderly without medication and the baby born on the side of the road. But in the end, I shouldn’t need to make justifications for the crisis. Whoever’s fault it was, it was a crisis. If you care, you don’t have to look far to learn the details. But, as a country, (the occasional true strategizing and theorizing aside,) we’d generally rather make fun of pictures of car pile-ups (with real injured people in them) than stop to try to care.
What kind of country are we?
But it’s not just the snow savvy folks belittling Atlanta’s crisis. It’s the rest of the country when one state doesn’t seem prepared for a hurricane. And it’s not just the large catastrophes either. It’s in the little ways we respond to people. It’s hearing someone express (or even complain) about their flu and thinking, they have no idea. I had the flu twice and each time it turned to pneumonia, or, come on I have a chronic illness and feel terrible all the time. It’s hearing someone cry about a breakup and gossiping to a friend later that it was “only” a month-long relationship. It’s our comments like, I might have some sympathy for that homeless man if he was actually trying to get a job. It’s when anybody expresses suffering or struggle and we treat that suffering or struggle as insignificant because it doesn’t meet our criteria for worthiness. Maybe we feel we’ve suffered more. Maybe the suffering is a “first world problem.” Maybe the sufferer is even a bit self-pitying or attention-seeking or annoying. Maybe the person “brought it upon themselves.” But whatever the reason, we have determined that they aren’t worth our empathy. We don’t want to pity the fool.
The problem is, empathy doesn’t work like that. In a world where you only get mercy if you “deserve it” nobody gets mercy. All of us have, at some point, missed one of the criteria. Our pain could always be worse than it is. Many of our sufferings are “first-world problems.” We all have sought or are seeking pity, consolation, and attention. And sometimes our sufferings, whether we knew it or not, were preventable. At some point, we are all fools. We all have sufferings that someone else might consider not worth noting. And so if we all view our empathy as a token to be won by matching criteria, we will eventually have a world devoid of empathy.
But we don’t really want a world like that. We want a world where empathy is abundant. That won’t happen until we see all suffering for what it is– suffering. We don’t tell a four-year-old with a paper cut that they are stupid and silly and selfish for crying because some people get their arms amputated. Of course, there is a place for perspective, especially with children– gentle reminders of pain like or beyond ours which can teach us gratitude and draw us out of ourselves into empathy for others who experience the problem of pain. But there is a great difference between perspective and dismissiveness. As long as we believe suffering to ever be worth consoling, we have no right to be dismissive of anyone’s suffering. We are all a part of humanity and humanity suffers– from the paper cut to the amputation– from the marital argument to the national war– from the hungry newborn struggling to feed to the starving child– from the middle school breakup to the divorce– the cold to the terminal illness– the two inches of snow to the seven feet. We are all suffering—sometimes at fault, sometimes not at fault, sometimes both. But nobody’s going to empathize with anyone, nobody is going to come together if we don’t first step out of the race, if we don’t first refuse to participate in the bitter banter and the categorizing and the tallying and the gossip and the judgment. Humanity is going to suffer. Why not bear it together?