When I got my first job out of college, I was working as a counselor to elderly adults with schizophrenia. By this time in my life, I had obsessively embraced differences in others and enjoyed an existence like a rainbow. I shook my head when I would read social media statuses written by my peers that glorified their own “us” in their world and vilified whatever “them” they spoke of. One such status was written by a person who never left my hometown, who spoke about how all the “drug-addict crazies were taking advantage of our governmental resources”. This person argued that those people need to “snap out of it, grow up and stop mooching off of my taxes.” The same day, one of the residents at the place I worked, who was surviving on government assistance, did not come down to take her medications. I went to her apartment and she was sitting in soiled underwear on her bed and staring at her dining room table without blinking. I asked her what was going on and she told me with great detail about what I couldn’t see. To her, she was the guardian of a small population of people who lived under her table. Recently, the city bus in her world had changed its schedule, and today it never came. This world had a bad rainstorm and she was worried about them, so she vowed not to leave them until they were safe on the bus. This was why she didn’t come for her medications and why she couldn’t go to her own bathroom.
She knew I couldn’t see the same world as her, but I knew that by me pointing out reality, she would become distressed and/or angry with me for challenging her own reality. Imagine if you were the only one who saw the sky as red and everyone insisted that it was blue. Instead of trying to convince her that she was having another delusion, I sat on her bed with her and looked at the table for a few minutes in silence. I asked her if it was “ok” for me to sit with her and she told me that was “ok” and that I was also helping the people feel safe. I asked her to tell me about the world under her table, and she took me on a journey full of details and plot lines.
After a while, I reminded her of why it was important to take her medications on time. I could have easily brought her medications to her room for her, but I knew that by doing that it would only help short-term. Then, I pulled out my cell phone and told her that I knew someone who could help her town. I fake-dialed on my phone and told her I had gotten through with the dispatch from the bus company. She looked at me and away from the table for the first time. I filed a fake-complaint and told her that the dispatcher informed me that the bus would be there in two minutes. I put my phone down and we counted down the seconds. The bus came and left, but it was still late…4 minutes and 20 seconds. I told her that we would write a letter that I would “mail” to complain about the bus schedule. She agreed that when the bus timetable started getting messy again in the future, she would come to me or to one of the other residents so we could make a call.
That night as I sat on her bed, it wasn’t her world or my world. It was her world that I became part of. I didn’t see the people, but I imagined them there under the table. I felt stress as I thought about the pressure she must feel every day thinking she is responsible for their safety. I thought about how she didn’t always see the people under the table when she was having a healthy spell, but always lived with the knowledge that they can and will come back…and there was nothing she could do about it. I thought about the sadness she had for knowing that she was mentally ill and that most of the world saw her as dangerous, dirty, outcast, and misunderstood. My heart broke as I thought about the intelligence she possessed and the college degree she had and could never use. It broke for the family and friends who put her away in a facility so they could distance themselves to continue their own lives. It broke for her dreams that died the day she tried to take her own life 30 years prior. Others like her, or the individuals with intellectual disabilities, I went on to work with, challenge me to try to imagine that my life could be very different with an extra chromosome or a chemical imbalance. By the luck of the draw, I didn’t need to know those struggles first hand.
Empathy is about much more than trying to see the world from another's perspective. For me, empathy is a contract I have with the world to live as an “us” and leave behind a concept of “them”. We need each other. We need disabled people just as much as “they” need “us”, if only to remind us that there are always two sides to an ever flipping coin. Entering into a empathy contract is not easy. It means being challenged every day to find ways to open our minds to other points of view. It means asking millions of questions, listening, and lifelong education about what it means to be alive for each person, no matter how much that person rubs us the wrong way. Empathy is something that needs to be extended before you learn the hard way that you may need empathy yourself one day. It is teaching the next generation to think independently, to love outside of their comfort zone, and to keep fighting for the collective “us”. It is a heart-breaking journey to feel other’s struggles right along with them. But, it’s also a beautiful journey to experience those magical moments when people come together to do the right thing. Empathy includes a special kind of joy that is hard-earned and fluid between others like “us”.
Currently, I am traveling around the world. I know some people think I ask too many questions. I also know that some are grateful that I am asking questions and not basing my judgements upon external influences. It can be fun when you can look past the poverty to find a poet, or to find someone completely different from you who has the same favorite movie. At my core, I want to know humanity. I want to know what works and what is broken in our world. Sometimes I am overwhelmed with so much love for everyone that I feel like I am going to burst. Other times, I find myself weeping because I can’t fix what’s broken. In the words of the individuals with intellectual disabilities I worked with for many years, they don’t want “sympathy”, or people to feel bad for them. They want “empathy”. I know I can’t fix the world, but I am trying to find little ways to empower those I see with needs to be able to fix themselves. After all, “they” want to be an “us” as well.
Katy Armstrong- Making Empathy Contracts Around the World