On My Own Lack of Empathy…Happy Thanksgiving!

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.

Screenshot_2018-11-17 Donald J Trump on Twitter

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.

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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.

Screenshot_2018-11-19 Trump_s Puerto Rico tweets are the purest expression of his presidency

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.

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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.


In Memoriam…eight kids

photo by Eliot Kamenitz - Times Picayune

From the Times Picayune…

In this impromptu gang of friends, “Band Camp” was the oldest, at 26. He was taking his turn with a cardboard sign, appealing to the charitable instincts of drivers on Elysian Fields Avenue as they slowed for the red light at North Claiborne. A month from now, he would likely be doing the same thing in a different city with different people, bound together by their preference for hitching rides on freight trains and living on the margins of society.

It was an unusually warm morning in late December. The drinking had taken its toll, and a shirtless Band Camp staggered through traffic. Still, one driver tossed a $5 bill. Another unloaded a couple small bags of Sun Chips, to the delight of the others hanging out on the neutral ground.

They happily discussed the lunch they would buy once they collected enough cash. But they were also in mourning. Later Thursday afternoon, they would attend a memorial for the eight young people who perished in a fire in an abandoned 9th Ward warehouse two mornings earlier.

Continue reading:

‘Traveling kids’ linked by tight networks in many cities – Times-Picayune

And on a more personal note:

One night a few years back, I was hanging out at Checkpoint Charlies in the Marigny, having a smoke and a drink and on stage was a guy doing his best with an acoustic guitar, but I think I was one of maybe five people in the place when in walked two kids. They slid up to the bartender and asked if they could play. Obviously, they were a couple of the “gutter punks” one sees on the streets, hanging out in the Quarter at night in Jackson Square, the Haight in San Francisco, the U-District in Seattle, Burnside in Portland, Peace Park in Madison or in so many other places across the country. The bartender shrugged and pointed at the guy on stage and the two kids waited for him to finish his song before asking if they could play a couple. He looked out at the empty bar and with a bemused expression said, “Sure, why not.”

One of the two kids, grinning now, ran to the door, signaled his friends outside and in walked six more kids carrying instruments. They quickly set up and began to play a raggedy song that was raw, and it was brilliant. By the time they had finished their third song the bar had almost filled with curious people, dancing, drinking and having a great time. The kids had a few CD’s for sale and I bought one.

I’m listening to it right now as I type this, and when I read about the fire…I wondered if any of those kids I saw that night were inside the squat.

Having been a social worker for the past many years, I’ve become somewhat familiar with the kids in the above mentioned towns. Many are troubled, many are not. Many are brilliant writers, musicians, activists and many are not. Many are living that life by choice and some don’t feel they have one. Some struggle with addictions and many don’t. Doing what I do, I’ve heard all the disparaging comments thrown their way over the years and then some, by a lot of people out there who want to dismiss them as a nuisance rather than accept their choice in lifestyle or offer help if they are looking for it, and that’s too bad. Some of those kids have the courage to reach for a life more free than most anyone else who typically reads the morning paper, and sometimes they suffer the hard nights of their choices, just like we all do.

And sometimes, those nights are harder than anyone could have imagined.

For those that have passed…RIP.

For those that knew them…I’m sorry for your loss and I wish you the best – with tolerance, equality and mutual aid…

– Drake