I’ve known for a long time I don’t contain the natural empathy or feeling of the average person. This could be how it’s always been. This could also be (in part) desensitization from a career in social work…twenty years of witnessed experiences and darker narratives:
– Doing paperwork in a crisis house when a woman walked up to me with a towel over her arm, “I think I made a mistake,” she said removing the towel, uncovering a clean incision from elbow to wrist…I nodded sympathetically, “Okay, wrap the towel back around and I’ll grab my keys. We’ll go to the hospital.”
– In the emergency room, listening to a young woman with broken front teeth and a bloody eye detail the horrific abuse she had been receiving from her husband…while I made steady, softened eye contact, nodding appropriately and formulating a plan to provide assistance.
Twenty years of horrendous situations, traumatic stories from people dealing with homelessness, abuse, people who have been beaten and thrown away. I’m not trying to say that I feel nothing. I do, but it’s muted, and comes less from an emotional response and more from an analytical choice of what the next correct decision should be given the situation. It’s learned. When my grandfather passed away, I left work early, not because I really felt the need to go home, but because the look of concern from my supervisor indicated that would be the appropriate response. When my client came to terms with her terminal diagnosis from untreated breast cancer, I sat with her for two hours as she tearfully processed this, leaving only to go get her some popsicles from the corner store because they were her favorite and seemed to be what she needed in that moment, or the times spent marching in the streets with thousands over the Chicago Police Department’s murder of another young man – this was correct because racism is wrong.
I used to try to see if I could fix this lack. I thought that perhaps my sense of humor was too dark or that there might be something wrong with the anger being my most frequent go-to, or strongest felt emotion. I knew, intellectually, that my muted responses made me a little different and also that my father was similar in these respects. I also learned from the myriad of social situations most everybody finds themselves in that certain responses are more socially acceptable than others, and if I was going to give up trying to fix what wasn’t going on within me that I was going to need to become practiced in what those responses should be, as well as really put in the time to develop a sense of ethics and social justice as an overall guide.
This past month a co-worker unexpectedly passed away. I had known this person for about a year as we had shared an office with others, her sitting directly behind me. We’d gone to lunch once or twice, had conversations. We’d discussed the sadness she had felt recently when she’d had to put her dog down. I knew about some of her struggles, her difficulties with her family and some of the challenges she was working to resolve. I received news of her death via text while working at a different site. The person who sent me the text was pretty busted up over it, you could see it through the characters and while reading the successive texts I didn’t have too much of a reaction, but I also knew that would be the incorrect response.
So I answered in kind, “That’s terrible. How is everyone doing down there?” (south side clinic) and we engaged around this for a few more texts, and being this person’s supervisor I suggested that if they needed, they were free to leave for the day in order to take any self-care necessary. This was the right thing to say as a supervisor. Also being the right thing: knowing another co-worker at my site was very close to this person, and that it might be better if I told them in person rather than potentially finding out by group e-mail later in the day. So I found them and told them what had happened. I watched them cry. I watched another person sit next to them and put his hand on their shoulder, and made a mental note that next time, in this situation, that would be something I might do.
I once had a conversation with my wife where we discussed social work, a profession she also enjoys. She told me one of things she admires is the compassion I have and how much I care about people. I was a little drunk at the time, and a bit honest about it all as I told her the reason I felt I was good at my job was because ultimately, I didn’t care too much. Writing that might make me sound bad. I get that, and it’s not something I enjoy about myself, rather I’ve learned to accept it. I told her I was able to look at social work situations like Chicago, not like New Orleans, meaning my approach is more clearly analytic, unclouded by an emotional heart. I’ve been successful doing things this way, but I wouldn’t have been nearly so without constant interaction and correction by other people, by observation, by learning that even if I don’t necessarily feel any which way, the right thing to do is this or that; it’s the ethical thing, the thing most likely to get justice for a particular individual in a situation that inherently contains very little.
So next week Saturday, I’ll be going to a memorial for my co-worker who passed away, deep on the south side of Chicago at a small park where a tree will be dedicated in her memory. This gathering will be attended by friends and family of the deceased as well as many people from the non-profit where I work. Emotionally, I feel no real compunction to go, but do I understand it is the right thing to do.
And I want to do the right thing. It’s important.
Have a nice day, and Happy Thanksgiving.