Selective empathy: a deeper dive

As if often the case with me, my recent meditation on the concept of “selective empathy” in the context of the 2020 election led me down a merry rabbit hole to learn more about the concept of selective empathy in general.

Hi, I’m Sherri and I like long walks on the beach, obsessively learning new things and brain science…

Now, I am in no way pretending to be an expert after reading a few online articles, but what I have read so far has me grappling with things in a way that is valuable to me. Like I can almost feel my brain expanding past some prior limitations and blind spots.

It’s an uncomfortable feeling, but also one I absolutely love.*

So here’s the provocative statement I’m mulling over tonight:

What if, by focusing on “empathy,” I’ve been barking up the wrong tree all this time?

Continue reading “Selective empathy: a deeper dive”

Learning as We Go

When I mentioned yesterday that I’d been doing affair piece of thinking recently about the tricky ground of enjoying problematic bits of artistic/cultural expression, it actually wasn’t because I’m a particularly huge fan of Miley Cyrus, Nicki Minaj, or Taylor Swift. Yes, I have a single or two in the iTunes library, but that’s about as far as it goes. The timeliness of yesterday’s VMAs provided an irresistible springboard to broach the subject in a post, but that was an after-the-fact exploration of the topic, not the inspiration for this line of internal study.

One piece that has the topic on my mind is that I purchased Roxane Gay’s book of essays Bad Feminist, and am eagerly waiting for the day I clear my reading decks enough to start seeing an absorbing what she has to say about these matters.

Henry_Rollins_TA_2More pressingly, I’ve been trying to figure out since last Thursday what to say about Henry Rollins.

Rollins writes a regular blog for the LA Weekly, and last Thursday, he wrote a provocatively titled essay* where he expressed his anger and confusion about Robin Williams’ suicide. The post is actually a fascinating exercise in internal contradiction, because Rollins acknowledges the impossibility of understanding another person’s pain in the grips of depression — speaking explicitly of friends and roommates who have struggled with the same, but also, to my perception, with a strong undercurrent of Rollins having had his own personal experiences with depression. And yet, for all that evident level of understanding — and even for the explicit admission that “I get it, but maybe I don’t,” Rollin’s essay lands on this position:

I simply cannot understand how any parent could kill themselves.

How in the hell could you possibly do that to your children? . . . I think as soon as you have children, you waive your right to take your own life.

[. . . ] Almost 40,000 people a year kill themselves in America, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In my opinion, that is 40,000 people who blew it.

Now, whatever my level of benign mostly-indifference is for Miley, Nicki and Taylor, I am unabashedly a fan of Henry Rollins — especially his spoken-word performances. (Stand-up? Storytelling? I never quite know what to call it.) In all my years in Philly, the only time I ever went down to Atlantic City was one night when Mr. Mezzo and I got tickets to see a Rollins spoken-word show there.**

Yet, however much I enjoy his spoken-word stuff, the level of impatience and humorously channeled rage those spoken-word pieces often reveal have always had me wondering about the level of Rollins’ impatience with human fallibility and weakness. I know “weakness” is such a charged word, but that’s really how it always played to my system.

Rollins would speak with such disdain about the mental/ethical weaknesses of prejudice, and would talk in such detail about the ind of discipline he used in his own life — the whole ascetic “straight-edge” thing, eschewing drugs and alcohol, dedicated to weights and fitness, and minimizing his possessions. I enjoyed going to his shows and listening to the recordings, but I always assumed if I were ever to meet Rollins, he’d have little but disdain for my life, with my weight, my occasional drinking, and my addictions to shopping and hoarding and physical possessions.

So I was disappointed to see last Thursday’s column, but I won’t say I was especially surprised. With the sorts of bright-line divisions I imagined him drawing between “strength” and “weakness,” I could imagine how his thought process would have led him to classifying suicide as an act of weakness. (Just so we’re clear: not at all a perspective I agree with. But I could halfway imagine the thought chain that took him there.)

Thus began a more intense meditation on “being a fan of problematic things.” For there I was, caught between the place of deeply — DEEPLY — disagreeing with Rollins’ essay, and yet knowing the equally deep affection I have for his past work.

And then things took a turn.*** Saturday morning, I got word that a brief apology had been posted on Rollins’ own website:

The article I wrote in the LA Weekly about suicide caused a lot of hurt. This is perhaps one of the bigger understatements of all time. I read all the letters. Some of them were very long and the disappointment, resentment and ringing clarity was jarring.

That I hurt anyone by what I said, and I did hurt many, disgusts me. It was not at all my intent but it most certainly was the result.

I have had a life of depression. Some days are excruciating. Knowing what I know and having been through what I have, I should have known better but I obviously did not.

In this post, Rollins promised a longer follow-up essay in the LA Weekly today. In it, he does a damn solid apology. Doesn’t take the “that’s not what I intended!”  road, or any of the derailment bingo plays that so often crop up in these hard conversations.

After reading carefully and responding as best I could, it was obvious that I had some work to do in order to educate myself further on this very complex and painful issue. I am quite thick-headed, but not so much that things don’t occasionally permeate.

In the piece, I said there are some things I obviously don’t get. So I would like to thank you for taking the time to let me know where you’re coming from. None of it was lost upon me. [. . .]

I understand it is my task to learn about this. It might take a while, but I will get on it. It is my belief about an ingrained sense of duty that will make this challenging, but I am always up for improvement.

What I most appreciated here — especially in the light of the ways I am in ongoing study of my own limitations (limitations of perspective, of compassion, of blind privilege…) — is Rollins’ acknowledgement that he has a lot to learn, and that he’s still struggling with his conflicting feelings about this issue. He doesn’t offer defensive justifications, but he doesn’t pretend to have it all magically worked out in the distance between Thursday and Monday.

Instead, there’s self-reflection, self-awareness, an owning of the rigid beliefs that led to the initial conclusions. And a commitment to continued learning, continued study, continued growth.

I’m up for that.

* Call me censor, call me chicken-shit, but here’s where I draw my own small moral line in the sand. I’ll include the accurate title in the hyperlink, and you can go read the essay for yourself, but I am not reproducing that particular sentiment here in my own digital living room.

** Train down, played the slots enough to pay for dinner, watched the show, then took the train back home. Do we know how to party, or do we know how to party?

*** Every now and then, my limited capacity to only do one post a day actually helps rather than hinders.


Image credit: Jonathan Klinger, shareable via a Creative Commons License (retrieved from )

Bubbles of Holiness

I’ve been watching the spontaneous online “wake” that’s sprung up after news of Robin Williams’ death broke yesterday evening. Like so many fans I’ve seen commenting on news reports and Facebook posts, I’m saddened and touched by this loss more strongly than I’ve been affected by other celebrity deaths.

what dreams may comeIt’s kind of silly. I certainly came no closer to meeting or crossing paths with Williams than with any other famous person. And yet the humanity and empathy that shone through his stand-up and scripted performances so strongly to me made me feel, just a little tiny bit, like Williams was part of my heart’s family. And so I’m feeling a surprisingly personal (almost even self-indulgent) sense of loss.

I deliberately chose not to say anything about this last night. In part that stems from an ongoing practice of learning to slow myself down, to take at least a tiny bit of reflective time before commenting on emotionally-charged events. Mostly, I was waiting to see if the initial reports of Williams’ death as an “apparent suicide” would turn out to be confirmed. (Which they were today by the county sheriff’s office.)

I’m fortunate enough that I haven’t tripped across a lot of judgement-monkeys in my online travels. I’m sure they’re out there, though. The kind of folks described by Dean Burnett in The Guardian:

However, despite the tremendous amount of love and admiration for Williams being expressed pretty much everywhere right now, there are still those who can’t seem to resist the opportunity to criticise, as they do these days whenever a celebrated or successful person commits suicide. You may have come across this yourself; people who refer to the suicide as “selfish”. People will utter/post phrases such as “to do that to your family is just selfish”, or “to commit suicide when you’ve got so much going for you is pure selfishness”, or variations thereof.

If you are such a person who has expressed these views or similar for whatever reason, here’s why you’re wrong, or at the very least misinformed, and could be doing more harm in the long run.

Burnett goes on to say some very smart things about the real, visceral, illogical and non-discriminatory nature of clinical depression — puncturing a number of misconceptions about our typical (lack of!) understanding for mental illness. He also has some incredibly on-point things to say about the lack of compassion — one could even say, “emotional selfishness,” of someone wanting to take this kind of finger-wagging response to the news of Williams’ death.

But why would you want to publicly declare that the recently deceased is selfish? Especially when the news has only just broken, and people are clearly sad about the whole thing? Why is getting in to criticise the deceased when they’ve only just passed so important to you? What service are you providing by doing so, that makes you so justified in throwing accusations of selfishness around? . . . Perhaps you feel that those expressing sorrow and sadness are wrong and you need to show them that you know better, no matter how upsetting they may find it? And this is unselfish behaviour how, exactly?

A brilliant but tortured individual has taken his own life, and this is a tragedy. But levelling ignorant accusations of selfishness certainly won’t prevent this from happening again. People should never be made to feel worse for suffering from something beyond their control.

Darn tooting.

Hollis Easter also has posted two very useful essays: one generally giving counsel about how to (and not to) talk about suicide in the wake of Williams’ death, and one focusing more specifically on the possible risks of using the common phrase “suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem” when talking about Williams’ (or anyone’s) suicide.

In a beautiful yes/and to Burnett’s post, Easter has many of the same cautions (and more besides) against the sorts of judgmental comments Burnett criticizes — as well as calling appropriate attention to the faux-sympathetic-but-subtly-judgemental ones like talking about how “if only he’d fought harder or gotten help!” Easter also has concrete advice about how to openly and compassionately talk about suicide if there’s anyone in your life who shares with you that they’re having suicidal thoughts and ideas. I say the advice is about how to talk to people in the situation, but that’s not exactly true, since a lot of the best advice boils down to this:

But really, just do your best to be direct in listening about suicide. Avoid catchphrases and pat advice, and just listen.

Make it less about what you say and more about what they say.

The advice is especially on point for this circumstance, but the core of it — hold compassion, stay in empathy, do more listening than talking — feel pretty on point in lots of life’s situations. The notes about compassion and empathy even bring me full-circle back to the ways that I value Robin Williams. How I would even say I love him — this wild, human, warm-hearted, genius I never knew beyond celluloid and VHS tape and video disc. How I will miss him.

One final quote, from Anne Lamott:

Gravity yanks us down, even a man as stunning in every way as Robin. We need a lot of help getting back up. And even with our battered banged up tool boxes and aching backs, we can help others get up, even when for them to do so seems impossible or at least beyond imagining. Or if it can’t be done, we can sit with them on the ground, in the abyss, in solidarity. You know how I always say that laughter is carbonated holiness? Well, Robin was the ultimate proof of that, and bubbles are spirit made visible.

Rest in peace.


Image credit:

Looking for My Emerald Specs

So d’you remember how in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz — note this is the title of the L. Frank Baum novel, not the Victor Fleming*/Judy Garland film — it turns out the Emerald City’s glorious emerald oversheen is caused by these lovely green goggles that get locked onto your head as soon as you get within the city walls, not be removed until you depart?

Why no, these things we've LOCKED onto you aren't significant in the littlest tiny bit....
Why no, these things we’ve LOCKED onto you aren’t significant in the littlest tiny bit….

I’m not really wanting some emerald overlord to lock more glasses onto my head. (The vision corrective specs I must to wear daily are rather enough on that score.) But I do find myself wishing for something spiritually similar to that tonight.

A coworker who I sometimes find challenging has been particularly so the last couple of days. She’s been running a bit of a martyr-complex kind of game, with all sorts of guilt-trippy chit-chat about how we don’t understand how HARD she’s working. And yet when any of us try to offer assistance or to share the workload, we are well and truly rebuffed.

It feels like a bit of a no-win situation, but I don’t especially feel like spinning through all my ego-emotional triggers around it. Instead, I’m on a bit of a different train of thought.

I truly believe that everyone has that intrinsic spark of divinity** within them. A “heart-self,” for lack of a clearer way to say it.

And I also believe that sometimes negative behaviors emerge because someone is unconsciously trying to get a little bit of care, attention, energy for their heart-self, but their past experiences have taught them the only way to get energy is to run these sorts of dysfunctional games. (I know for damn sure I’ve done that lots of times within my OWN limitations.)

So at one very small level, I can have compassion for this co-worker as I imagine the desire to get some energy for her heart-being. But the challenge I’m feeling is that I’m so triggered by the no-win/guilt trip/rejection cycle that I am not finding any capacity to actually see her heart-being.

Which brings me back to the magic specs. Wishing for that heart-colored lens or filter that I could hold in front of my eyes and see this woman’s heart-self. See everyone’s heart-self. See my world and the people in it with a lot more kindness, compassion, and acceptance.

Of course, the wizard’s magic was all humbug in that book, so I’m guessing that my ability to see beyond the behaviors into the heart-self is going to be a lot more about practice and prayer and a lot less about being the child who gets a magic present.

* I know. That’s not really even half of the directorial lineage here.

** Spirit, light, heart, authenticity….whatever name for the “Big Good Thing” speaks true for you.


(Responsibility for the caption 100% mine)