I have a lot of nephews and nieces. Mostly nephews, but hey – no complaints. And having babysat, been a nanny, and worked with kids pretty much ever since I was among them in one capacity or another, I am rarely surprised (although I am incessantly worried…before I knew for sure I wouldn’t want to have kids in this life – more on that in another post – I remember my mother saying, “I hope you never have boys…you wouldn’t let them have any fun!”). Two of our nephews – two brothers, aged 3 and 5 – are the best of friends and the worst of enemies. They play ninjas, knights, Batman, Spiderman, and any- and everything that involves wars, battles, feuds, good vs. evil…although I’m not entirely sure they grasp that completely just yet. For the moment they are just boys through and through and through and through.
In the midst of one of their battles-turned-real the other day, their grandmother remarked how lucky they’d been to have received so many Christmas gifts (they did well, but nothing over-the-top this year), and sort of “shame on them” to then behave this way. And it occurred to me that I have a lot to say on this subject that has been brewing in my brain for a very long time. And my mother-in-law is most certainly not a person with whom I can opine about such things. So, gentle readers, here goes.
I simply do not buy into the walk-in-another-man’s-moccasins adage. Well, sort of, but only within very strict parameters. Many years ago, in the midst of a mini-breakdown (that in retrospect was well-warranted), a friend endeavored to console me by offering her personal way of coping: “Whenever I feel horrible, I just think about how many people have it so much worse than me.” This comment did not make me angry, because I knew straight away that she was truly trying to help…a moment of grace in a very dark time. However, I felt straight away that it was absolute bullshit for three reasons: 1. Whatever horrible suffering people around the world experience did not, in that moment, negate mine; 2. Neither I nor my friend had any context for understanding the extremities of that kind of suffering; 3. That friend of mine moaned about her life more than anybody I ever knew. Ergo, her tactic was obviously not working.
When the riots broke out in London last year, people were enraged with the young people looting. Everywhere there were comments about them along the lines of, “They don’t know how good they’ve got it!” This provoked within me two angry replies. Firstly, no – they didn’t know how good they had it. That is because a large portion of those young people have probably not been too far outside of their boroughs, let alone to far-away countries with the sort of bad “it” that sits at the polar opposite of this proclamation. They are forced into an uninspired education that certainly doesn’t compensate for the gaps in their available travel funds. So often we become angry at people for the most irrational reasons, and yet we feel so terribly justified! My second anger-filled response (that stayed comfortably tucked inside the confines of my brain at the time…I’m a terrible blogger) was to question whether the people who did presumably know how good these young people have it also knew how bad they have it. Having worked in care homes and hostels in London, the best artistic representations I’ve been able to find have been this song by Speech Debelle (lyrics here for my U.S. American readers who may struggle with the accent) and this incredible, if incredibly difficult, film.
So my point is this: there are limitations to our understanding and empathy, and those are valid. I’m not innocent here – many’s the time I’ve inwardly rolled my eyes at someone’s grief only to realize a while later how very difficult it was for them. Our children do not – and should not – know how hard life is for the starving children in Africa. They will know plenty as they grow, and it will be hard enough for them to grasp in their adolescence. And while we should appreciate the things we have, and we should eat the nutritious food on our plate, and we should behave with respect for ourselves and others, it is not because others are suffering – the fact is that in a perfect world, no one would have to suffer like that at all! We should do all of these things because they make life better for us and those around us, and there are short-term and long-term benefits for both the individual and the community when we do, and out of a desire to create a better world for ourselves, not out of some perceived – and very much misplaced – empathy for suffering we cannot comprehend.