Empathy for Dummies

By Cyberquill 02/01/20142 Comments

As If

A woman cannot possibly understand what it is like to get kicked in the balls.

Although technically accurate in the narrowest of senses, the above statement also happens to be blatantly condescending toward women, as it implies that, in general, women are incapable of grasping the relatively simple concept of physical pain.

Or, in case they might indeed be familiar with said concept as a result of having experienced physical pain themselves at one point or another, that they couldn’t possibly project the experience onto sentient creatures outside of themselves.

To declare that a woman cannot possibly understand what it is like to get kicked in the balls is tantamount to saying that women cannot possibly understand physical pain of any kind except whatever identical physical pain they have experienced themselves, at the identical level of intensity, and for the identical reason they’ve experienced it—in all other cases, women cannot help but assume that individuals that profess to experience physical pain are either exaggerating, lying, or crazy.

Enter blogger Rachel, who writes this in a recent post:

[A] man cannot possibly understand what it is like to suffer from endometriosis—an incredibly painful chronic condition that affects more than five million women in the U.S. and in some cases can be treated with birth control pills.

In essence, Rachel puts forth that I, a man, am incapable of grasping the concept of physical pain; or of imagining that such pain might be of of a different intensity, quality, or duration, than any physical pain I have ever experienced in myself, and that such pain could beset creatures whose anatomies are dissimilar to my own in some respects.

Rachel fails to clarify whether, in her view, the roughly 150 million U.S. women that do not have endometriosis (hopefully including herself) could possibly understand what it is like to suffer from this condition.

Seems to me that, on Rachel’s logic, all men and most women cannot possibly understand what it feels like to have uterine tissue growing in places where it shouldn’t.

In any case, let me venture the following thought experiment:

Chuck Norris has kicked me in the groin. I am writhing in agony. However, unlike on previous occasions, this time the pain won’t let up, but it continues unabated, hour after hour, day after day, year after year.

A terrifying thought for sure—might it be in the ballpark, pardon the pun, of what an endometriosis sufferer is going through?

I don’t know. Doesn’t really matter whether the pain I’m imagining here mirrors endometriosis pain to a T. The point is, it’s fucking painful, and every non-masochistic sufferer of pain naturally desires nothing more than its cessation.

As an alternative, one could simply conjure the specter of a toothache that never ends. Even a mild skin itch, innocuous and easily remedied under normal circumstances by way of scratching, can drive a person bonkers within a relatively short period of time if it cannot be accessed, say, under a plaster-of-Paris cast.

Or imagine you’re permanently itching on the inside of your body, where you’d literally have to tear yourself open in order to scratch. Never happened to me, thank God, and so I “cannot possibly know” what this is like, nor do I know whether endometriosis pain feels closer to a perpetual itch on the inside or the unrelenting sensation of having just gotten kicked in the balls.

Either way, the terms “painful” and “chronic” should suffice to signal to all but the dimmest among us that whatever is described thus can’t be a pleasant condition, potential variations in nature and intensity from individual to individual notwithstanding.

Yet according to Rachel, if I, a man, hear that a woman’s uterus has gone haywire, never having had a uterus myself, I’ll either hopelessly underestimate the capacity of this organ for engendering torment, or I’ll just blow it off altogether as an instance of either a hysterical female that just wants attention, or a scheming jezebel too stingy to pay for her own birth-control pills, therefore feigning agony in order to gin up public support for the upholding of laws that mandate employers to cover them.

Rachel continues:

A man cannot know what it is like to experience debilitating menstrual cramps once a month, […]

Again, I, a man, can easily imagine myself getting whacked in the groin once a month and the ensuing pain persisting for several days. So there are my cramps. Not the exact same kind of pain, perhaps, but highly debilitating, that’s for sure.

I remember one ex-girlfriend curled up on the sofa in fetal position for hours, tears streaming down her cheeks, whimpering and trembling all over from cramps. In principle, that’s how I envision myself lying there after one of Chuck Norris’s flying side kicks has connected with my crotch. (In reality, such an impact would probably result in an all-out fracturing of my testicles, requiring emergency surgery and whatnot. For the sake of this discussion, let’s just limit the consequences of this hypothetical crotch kick by Mr Norris to its causing excruciating pain.)

During those days of the month, the aformentioned girlfriend would frequently ask me to cup my hand tightly over her vulva—I once heard a female psychologist/women’s advocate launch into a prolonged and impassioned lamentation regarding the epidemic mislabeling, especially by young women, of vulvas as vaginas, being two distinct anatomical structures, so I figure the least I can do when discussing things I “cannot know” is to use the correct gynecological terminology—for as long as possible or until she fell asleep, for she claimed it helped ease her cramps.

While this worked for her, other women may shudder at the notion of an iron male grip on their genital area when they’re already hurting down there anyway. That’s because, as per my humble observations, just as different women’s bodies respond with some degree of variation to identical stimuli, individual women’s experiences with their monthlies are far from uniform, and not all cramps are alike.

Ergo, if a man “cannot know what it is like to experience debilitating menstrual cramps once a month,” how can a woman that never experiences cramps at all or experiences only mild ones every now and then?

Put differently, how can a woman possibly know what it’s like to be another woman?

Not wanting to put words into her keyboard, but judging from the gist of her commentary, it stands to reason that Rachel also subscribes to the thesis that a man cannot possibly know what it’s like to have a period, whether attended by debilitating cramps or not.

Well, let me try anyway:

When I was waiting tables, I occasionally cut myself while removing the wire and foil atop a champagne bottle. So for the next five to twenty minutes—depending on how often I’d inadvertently interrupt the healing process by re-opening the cut with an unguarded movement of the injured finger—I’d run around the dining room trying as best as I could, and as discreetly as possible while in plain view of the patrons, to staunch the bleeding with cocktail napkins so as to avoid getting blood on my shirt and to prevent any transfer of blood from myself onto the items I was serving, as most diners, at least the non-vampires among them, prefer their Martinis without their waiter’s blood on the glass.

Trivial as this analogy may sound, I do know from personal experience that attempting to bleed discreetly, and without leaving irksome stains all over the place, is a pain in the neck, even if the source is but a tiny surface laceration that’ll be healed within the hour.

So now I imagine an open wound that bleeds and hence requires staunching for days, I add the notion of having gotten kicked in the groin to mimic cramps, I season the mix with mild to uncontrollable mood swings (“I’ll love you one minute and hate you the next, and for no obvious reason,” as one friend once illustrated to me the effects of her hormonal fluctuations), and then I envision this confluence of undesirables to endure not for a mere five to twenty minutes, but for up to a hundred hours every month.

However closely my kludged-together scenario may approximate what it’s like to have a period, it certainly suffices to make me rather grateful that I’m not a candidate.

Come to think of it, I’ve only met one woman so far who told me that she actually “liked” her periods (meaning beyond their affording the soothing assurance of ongoing youthfulness twinned with having dodged the pregnancy bullet once again). And she most certainly had no first-hand knowledge of what it’s like to have debilitating cramps once a month.

Rachel furthermore opines that a man cannot know what it is like

to be told by a doctor that, because of some other health condition, pregnancy is inadvisable[.]

Once again, a little imagination goes a long way.

In acting, by the way, the operative term is “substitution,” also known as Stanislavski’s famous “as if.” It works like this:

I, personally, love raisins. Now let’s say I have been cast to portray a raisin hater. What do I do? How can I, who doesn’t know what it is like to hate raisins, relate to such an alien creature and play him with an air of authenticity?

The trick, of course, is to picture some viand that I cannot stand—snails, for example—and then play the dessert scene as if the raisins in the pie were bits of raw snails. The mere thought of it makes my stomach turn. And that’s the point, for as does the stomach of the character I’m playing at the sight of actual raisins in his pie.

Likewise, given that I, personally, am neither a woman, nor have I ever had any desire to become a parent, how would I know what it’s like for a woman to be told that due to some medical condition she either cannot or should not ever conceive?

Same approach, for just as a woman may desire motherhood more than anything else in her life, I have my own dreams and goals, and I’d be devastated if I were to learn of some health issue that would make it “inadvisable” or flat-out impossible for me to pursue them any further.

If, for instance, my doctor told me that due to some hypothetical medical condition it would be inadvisable for me to ever attempt to make a living in any artistic/creative line of work, and hence I were for all times locked into waiting tables or similar spiritually draining drudgeries, I may die of a broken heart, and quite literally at that. I’d certainly have a breakdown of one form or another.

Reading this, an aspiring mother may now be tempted to peg me for a bit of a drama queen on this score—just as I, who cannot fathom why anyone would ever want to have children, might, as a matter of initial reflex, be tempted to dismiss a woman’s emotional distress over the intelligence that her dream of ever becoming a biological mother has collapsed as her making Mount Olympus out of a molehill.

Point being, if one can understand the basic concept of a shattered dream, the precise nature and content of a given person’s shattered dream becomes secondary, indeed irrelevant, to understanding what this person is going through. Once we define the underlying principle in play and draw parallels to—i.e., substitute—phenomena that we, personally, can relate to, it’s really not that difficult.

Finally, Rachel concludes that

[M]en don’t know what it means to be raped and to face the prospect of pregnancy as a result, […]

Luckily, most women don’t know, either, at least not according to Rachel’s apparent definition of “know what it means.”

What I do know is that I, a man, am extremely sensitive to my personal space being invaded without my express permission or tacit consent.

For instance, it annoys me greatly whenever I feel compelled by social etiquette to shake hands when I either don’t wish to make physical contact with the specific person in front of me, or am not in the mood to make physical contact with anyone at that time.

And I absolutely hate being hugged by a man, no matter how platonic the motivation behind the hug, although I will sometimes grudgingly allow it, if only to ward off the predictable question of whether my dad ever hugged me (usually topped off with the solicitous suggestion that I may want to see a therapist about this—yawn!!!).

At first blush, feeling coerced into shaking hands when I don’t want to seems such a far cry from being raped as to the point of being virtually unrelated, but it really isn’t. In fact, precisely because some relatively minor invasions (i.e., whatever I happen to perceive as such) have the potential for rankling me already, I can project with confidence the toll that major invasions would take.

See, although you’ve never been burnt at the stake, you probably know what it’s like to have gotten distracted by something and accidentally hold a lighted match for a few seconds too long. The resulting burn, while a nuisance at best, makes it fairly easy to extrapolate what it must feel like to have your whole body being consumed by fire—if it didn’t, why do you shudder at the thought of being burnt alive, never having found yourself in that situation?

While, on the one hand, it sounds eminently sensible to suggest that you cannot possibly know what it’s like to be burnt at the stake until you’re actually tied to the post and the fagots (= bundles of sticks, twigs, or branches bound together and used as fuel) are being lit at your feet, all you really need to do is hold the tip of your pinkie into a candle flame for half a second, and you’ll get a pretty good sense of how horrific an experience it must be.

Likewise, based on how I tend to respond to all manner of uninvited or otherwise unconsented-to incursions into what I choose to define as my personal space, no matter how seemingly trifling those invasions might be, I can easily extrapolate that if I were a female being raped, at the very least I’d suffer a major claustrophobic panic attack, most likely followed by my taking refuge in the land of Catatonia, depending on the duration and frequency of the unsolicited intrusion(s).

As to facing the prospect pregnancy in consequence of having been sexually assaulted, now having to choose between forced motherhood or some guy in a white lab coat tinkering around inside of me with a giant forceps and half the country thinking I’ll go to hell as a result, I’d freak out, plain and simple.

Although circumstances and coping skills may vary from victim to victim, grokking the fundamental nature of rape and the gravity of its potential consequences seems less a function of one’s sex than of possessing a core capacity—and willingness—to grasp simple concepts and leaven them with a modicum of imagination.

In related news, a few days ago, Amanda Knox, whose murder conviction has now been reinstated by an Italian court, said this:

I’m a marked person, and no one who’s unmarked is going to understand that.

Same question: what’s not to understand about it? The lady will spend the rest of her days with the connotation of murderess affixed to her name and likeness. Plus, depending on the vicissitudes of the Italian legal system in conjunction with the political winds blowing in Washington, at some point an FBI swat team with an extradition warrant may show up at her house.

Unmarked as I am—and, once again, allowing for some latitude with respect to individual circumstances that may distinguish one marked person’s plight from another’s—contemplating Amanda Knox’s situation gives me the heebie jeebies.

I just hope she doesn’t have cramps to boot.

In the words of Academy Award nominee [UPDATE: winner] Lupita Nyong’o:

I don’t believe that we’re really as individual as we think we are, and that’s what makes the profession of acting possible. We can empathize with things bigger than ourselves.

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  • Guest

    Let me clear up the issue of the pain of childbirth vs. getting kicked in the balls once and for all. When a man gets kicked in the balls, he will go to great extremes to never have it happen again. When a woman has a baby she often does it again and again. Case closed.

    • http://blog.cyberquill.com/ Cyberquill

      Thanks for clearing this up. The same, of course, applies to the pain of childbirth vs. endometriosis pain or debilitating cramps pain, as the latter two carry no benefits to outweigh the pain.

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