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Thursday, January 13, 2011

day 10: cold showers, camel balls and empathy as a tool

I had an interesting conversation today about relative suffering. And by conversation I mean, had a friend at work essentially accuse me of being a prude for showering when the water was cold. I know, right? Just wait. I'm gonna connect the hell out of those two things.

   She breaks it down like this: I took a shower instead of just leaving for work after realizing the water was cold. The implication extracted from this is that I must shower all the time, even when I don't need it and (in her opinion) that makes me prissy and high maintenance and THAT means I'm out of touch with the "real world" (ie; should shower only when smelling of camel's satchel, like old country!).

   It's funny finding yourself trying desperately to defend your right to take a shower when you want to feel clean. It's absurd, but this particular friend has always been good at pushing me into the most absurd corners, making me feel I need to argue my way out. The crux of the argument wasn't of course about showers, but this person's belief that everyone who grew up in North America is out of touch with suffering vs. my need to prove I'm not. (This touches pretty close to the subject of yesterday, but that's not the conversation I want to pursue).

   One of the things that bugs me about this is the presumption that unless you've had bomb shells coming down around your house as a child, you can't really understand and respect what's happening in other parts of the world. I didn't particularly want to get into all of the senseless violence and chaos I experienced and witnessed as a child with this person, but in a way I feel I shouldn't have to.  

   The fact is, while I value someone with perspective, I would never wish my experiences on someone else just so they can say they understand suffering. I appreciate the fact that I can use my experiences to learn about myself and to value safety. I also truly appreciate and understand what it means to live in a country like Canada, because I do watch/read the news, I do have conversations with people from different places and I do travel as much as I can. Resoundingly I hear in these conversations an appreciation for this country and the ability to have things like frivolous conversations, self indulgence and sleep interrupted by nothing but dreams*. Rarely do I hear them saying they wish people in Canada could experience what they've been through. 

   That some of us had a more expansive world view? Sure. Some are truly content in a bubble of ignorance and indulgence (hence the horror film industry) and it can be really frustrating. That being said, I'm often surprised at the amount of pain residing just beneath the surface of most people's sunny and care-free pretences. Invalidating that pain because you think someone, somewhere else has experienced something more horrific shows no respect to either condition because you're treating their pain like a competition instead of what it is. A truly unfortunate human condition that we all share, the ability to be hurt.

   If this is your prerogative, then what is it we gain from this "new sight"? Is this perspective simply to facilitate us becoming compassion dispensers for every person in a worse situation? Will the ensuing guilt (and very occasional charity**) make the pain we experience worth it? Or perhaps, do we learn about pain so we can measure when suffering is worth what we would gain? Like learning heart break but throwing yourself back in because you've found one person who would be worth what you might have to lose in order to win.

   I really believe that compassion is wonderful, but that it doesn't need to be a product of seeing horrific tragedy. Empathy let's us tie our experienced pain to that of others and gives us what we need to take stock of our circumstances. Today I appreciate my circumstances, but ask others to respect my pain. I will do my best to offer the same. And next time I pass by a trivial conversation about the wonders of grape-fruit or how hard it is for someone to wake up in the morning (both actually happened today), I will smile to myself and be more grateful still.

*I had a student of mine who day-times as a pharmacist tell me about all the regulations and testing he undergoes on an almost monthly basis just to make sure he is giving people the right drugs/advice. I realized I took that for granted, but he shared that where he is from they don't come even close to regulating to that degree. This place was not third-world, it just didn't think a few people dying from poor instructions every year was worth financing that kind of infrastructure.

**the derisive nature of this statement isn't for charity, it's for charity bred of guilt. Charity necessitated out of guilt is just another word for slavery, stating that any man can have what I earned simply because their need is greater. Charity is a choice, not an obligation. Else, why would it be admirable?

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