"I Can't Imagine..."
How empathy helps in turbulent times
I want you to imagine a scene …
You are standing in line at the fast food kiosk in one of those gloomy highway rest stops. The atmosphere is awful, the tables and chairs have been removed because of a pandemic that has created great fear of people getting sick. Which means, nobody is smiling, everyone is tentatively moving around, and the tension is high.
In front of you is a large family, two parents and five kids. The parents are doing their best to corral their children, take food orders, and deal with their general fussiness.
One kid is complaining about a mistaken order, one kid is repeatedly asking mom if he can go check out a display, another kid is crying for really no discernible reason.
Just as they get their food, the parents do a quick search of the bags and realize there is a missing order of fries. Exhaustion appears on dad‘s face as he calculates the amount of time it will take to place a new order. Annoyance washes over mom as the teenage cashiers completely deny their mistake.
Finally, the food is ready. Yours is next, and you wait for your meal, anxious to get on your way. As the family furiously gathers themselves, they pass by you in line. You are motivated to say something.
The possibilities are endless. You could complain about the wait, you could make a joke to lighten the mood, you could even give a word of encouragement to parents who clearly have their hands full.
As the dad passes you, you open your mouth and say…
“I pity you.”
That comment was like a stray bullet whizzing past my ear. A completely unwarranted, unnecessary word from a stranger who, wrapped up in his own world, could not consider what kind of effect his sentiments would have on anyone.
I shot back some quick retort — something along the lines of, "We're fine." But for the next eight to 10 minutes my drive was hijacked as I processed my feelings about the interaction. Sadly, I chose to spend energy I didn’t really have dealing with some random comment from some uncaring human being.
Sadly, this is not a unique situation when you have triplets.
On the babies’ first trip to the doctor’s office, my wife and I wielded two strollers — one single and one double — across an icy parking lot in the midst of a blustery winter day.
“Are those triplets???“ Some unknown person yelled across the parking lot.
Seriously? Do I look like I’m in a space to have a conversation?
I wish I could say I didn’t dignify the question. I wish I could say that was the only time it happened. I wish I could say I was alone in that experience. But sadly I’ve learned that for people who stand out socially, these experiences are all too familiar.
I learned that in public you can be assaulted at any point with some unwanted comments about your position. Eventually, you start looking for it. If you are not careful, you start expecting it. You start arming yourself every time you go outside. Preparing your comebacks. Preparing your armour. Unfortunately, this guardedness leaves you with less energy to care for the wounds you inevitably experience from the mouths of ignorance.
In the almost six years since my family ballooned from two kids to five, my workplace has been a source of support. The biggest thing my colleagues have done is help me relieve tension. Because a lot of times when I talk to people I know and trust about my family, we end up chuckling at the surrealness of it all.
At the school where I teach we’ve shared several laughs about my busyness. I get teased about a lack of sleep, and I tease back when people complain to me about being overloaded. This is all done in a playful way. It’s a joke I am always in on. It’s a tension reliever. It keeps me connected to the community when so much of my life pulls me away. I feel seen. I feel acknowledged. I feel like they are reminding me that these intense circumstances require a level of grace, self compassion, and care.
I’ve had the opposite experience, too. I’ve had my story being told for me, in front of me, to a group of strangers. It only invites the comments, the unwanted conversations, the pity.
In the quiet of my room (when there is quiet), I reflect on these experiences. I try to ask myself, if I am bothered by these unsolicited comments in public, how must many women feel about their day-to-day public safety? If I bristle at people telling strangers about my unique family life, how must closeted people feel when people out them, talk about them, or talk behind their backs? I am a straight male, which carries social power and privileges, which means I need to take extra care in attempting to understand the experience of another.
The conventional line, one I have heard many many times, is: “I could never fully understand what it’s like to walk in your shoes.”
In my experience, this is an incomplete sentiment. And when it is spoken to me, it only serves to create distance between us. Because when people say this, I fear they are giving themselves license to avoid the hard work of trying to figure it out.
I firmly believe that our beings — our minds, emotions, and souls — come equipped with empathy. But empathy is a tool that we must learn to use.
Maybe we will never understand what it’s like to walk in someone's shoes, but should that mitigate our efforts? Will we give up attempting at all and succumb to apathy?
For the last six years I have fielded questions about sleep, reacting to my major surprise, the babies’ personalities, how I feel about day-to-day life, and even conception. (Really, guys?)
And as I humbly and tiredly bare my soul to answer these questions, the most common phrase I hear back is, “Oh, I can’t even imagine.”
For too long, in the spirit of being nice, I have absorbed that comment and bitten my tongue.
I’m standing here telling you about my experience, and yet you can’t seem to imagine?
Now, comes the part of the story where someone tells me to ‘get over it’ because they ‘didn’t intend to be hurtful.’
I know those words are not intended to cause harm. I know the people who say them are not trying to push me away. They’re simply not aware of the impact of their comments. But the reality is, they are stepping on my emotional toes, and over the years, in scores of similar interactions, I’ve learned that my toes do not care about the intent of your foot.
Telling me you “can’t imagine” is an ineffective statement. It brings us no closer. You may feel empathetic, but we are not connected — and connection can lead to strength and encouragement for both of us.
So here’s what I want you to do ...
What if you tried to imagine?
If you try to imagine, you will feel pain. You will start to feel some of the weight a person is forced to bear. It will hurt. You will have to resist the urge to run from the pain. Because if you stay — stay in the moment and allow yourself to feel — your empathy, imagination, and resourcefulness will be sparked.
If you put yourself in someone else’s shoes, if you choose to consider more than a cursory glance towards the burden that someone bears, it will change the way you think. You will start to consider questions like:
If this was me ...
How would I be feeling?
What would my daily experience be?
What would I need?
What would help me get through this?
What would encourage me?
What might ease my load?
Answering those questions will spark your empathy. It might even give you ideas of how to help.
Then, if it’s possible, you can ask people those questions. “How are you feeling? What does a day look like for you? Is there anything you need?”
Now, we have a chance to connect.
In my astoundingly busy parenting life, I really just want to be seen, and encouraged, by my friends. The everyday grind of pouring myself into the physical, emotional, and spiritual lives of five young ones is a giant task. When I am down, some verbal affirmation and encouragement to keep going is really enough for me. (That, and the occasional night out for barbecue.)
Can my parenting experience help us talk about race?
In recent months, after baring my heart in a Facebook post about my grief over anti-Black racism, a dear friend stepped on my toes with that classic line, “Oh, I can’t imagine what you’re experiencing right now.”
My mind raced through all of the ways I could respond, but this time, I chose to conserve my energy. Instead, I started to think again of this process of empathy.
In this season of racial unrest, an enormous spotlight has been placed on the burden facing Black and Brown brothers and sisters. It is time for all of us to start asking questions in hopes of connection. The questions that will cause us pain. The questions that will require us to think about the experiences of others. The questions that will give us even a modicum of understanding of burdens borne. The questions whose answers will make us feel like running.
How are you feeling? What is your daily experience? What do you need?
I humbly submit that regardless of your intent, “I can’t imagine” is no longer a helpful or useful phrase.
Now is the time to try.