We don’t all experience having cancer. Yet many people do.
Sometimes the folks who have cancer look just like you and me. They look healthy on the outside, with rose cheeks, hiking the mountains. We see them on their good days, smiling, yet when we hear that they have cancer, our hearts sink.
When we hear they have bad days, we extend them compassion. We believe them when they tell us that this is a good day, and other days they can’t get out of bed.
We hear them. And our hearts break for them. And we immediately give them a piece of our heart, through our eyes, and perhaps we even say a silent prayer that God will step in and alleviate their suffering.
We believe people when they tell us that they suffer with cancer. We don’t believe that having cancer is a myth, a made-up condition for attention, because we see the horrifying effects of such a powerful illness play itself out in people’s lives. We hear clinics and doctors talk about the severity of the illness. We believe them, as well.
I don’t have to personally experience cancer to know that it is real. To know that people with this illness can suffer. To know that the disease can cause pain to an individual — mentally, physically, and emotionally.
So why is it that when someone else brings certain sufferings to the American table, we choose to pretend they are not real, simply because we, ourselves, have not experienced them?
Why is it that when we are faced with certain realities, certain situations, our same compassion that extends a hug or touch to someone with cancer turns then to a heart of stone, set in a wall of disbelief, angled at someone who may be suffering from something that we may not have personally experienced?
Horrors like racism, sexism, and domestic abuse, conditions like mental illness and addiction — these ailments appear to be empathy-conditional. These ailments appear not to be believed when people express pain from experiencing them.
How is it that we can pick and choose our compassion?
A common untruth in America today is that racism is “dead”. I find this perspective to be propagated by Caucasian people who have never left predominantly Caucasian-populated states, in order to live. Since they live around many white people, and they themselves may not consider themselves racist, they deem racism as a myth, simply because they have not seen it, nor experienced it.
Why would they experience racism? They’re white people in white states surrounded by white culture. It’s never happened to them. So they don’t believe it exists. Or worse, they believe it’s an attention-seeking battlecry from a minority population who is out to quarantine jobs by playing the “race card”, rather than realizing that sometimes, jobs are often withheld from people of color — simply because they are different than the white person hiring them.
The same conditional empathy exists around sexism. I’ve noted that the largest population to insist that sexism is not real is, ironically, women over the age of 45. This is often the case because women, especially in the GenX and above demographic, are born into the role of making less money, being blown-off and marginalized for their intelligence in the workplace, and this lesser-than-existence is an everyday occurrence for many women. Therefore it does not seem like imbalance or a double standard. It’s simply “life”.
Ironically, women of color notice workplace injustices faster than their Caucasian counterparts simply because they are familiar with the pattern of being dismissed. Caucasian women do carry with them the white privilege of at least partially being seen by the world.
These are all real issues in the United States. Yet there will be those who argue, with false statistics in hand, that sexism is not real. That racism is not real. That anti-LGBTQ behavior is not real.
They will argue simply because they themselves have not experienced it.
Yet these same individuals will often happily bring a casserole to a healthy looking person of any color, who suffers with cancer.
People believe that physical pain is real even if they haven’t experienced the exact physical pain, because they’ve been in some sort of physical pain before, and can therefore relate to the pain. Perhaps people have a fear of an untimely death, and can relate with the fear of dying early from a disease. These are relatable human experiences.
Yet to dismiss another’s struggle simply because one has not experienced it themselves is to lack empathy.
To question a person of color who insists that their life in America is not the same as a Caucasian person’s life is a flag that the person questioning either cannot handle the truth that in America, we treat people with differing skin colors differently overall, or worse, perhaps the person doing the questioning is so overburdened with their own issues in their life, they simply don’t have the emotional energy leftover to empathize with another.
Once emotionally overburdened, the person who doesn’t feel a need to enact empathy for another then feels bitter that perhaps their wounds are not being tended to, either. So why should they make room for anyone else’s pain? And if they do make room — does that mean they must evaluate heir own situation as well?
We pick and choose what we believe based upon the bandwidth we personally have, emotionally, to process our own emotional pitfalls. Interestingly, I’ve noted that the most harshly judgmental humans I’ve run into in the USA, when it comes to empathizing with race, gender, or sexual identity issues — happen to be Caucasian women.
Perhaps that’s simply because I live in the white state of Montana and being a Caucasian female, I’m surrounded by predominantly Caucasian females. Yet my female indigenous nation friends seem to carry a greater sense of empathy, day to day, for those who suffer with issues they personally cannot relate with.
I’m making the assumption that because many of my Native American friends have struggled with the rough tremors of reservation life, and the subsequent cycles of human and cultural erasure inflicted upon their generations, that they have the bandwidth to understand another’s struggle.
As do my LGBTQ friends.
As do my Latin friends.
As do my African American friends.
As do my friends who suffer through bouts with mental illness.
Our ability in America to dismiss someone else’s struggle just because we’ve not felt it ourselves is the very definition of a lack of empathy, and a defining factor in “white privilege”.
Caucasian society and its addiction to shame has a fascinating way of simply sweeping an unsightly issue under the rug, and continue on to our Super Bowls and our margaritas. When this same turn-key Caucasian society is inconvenienced with facts, such as racism, sexism, and gender issues, we do what we’ve done for generations: create new yet false facts that match our sweep-under-the-rug narrative, and pass those false facts around as truths.
If the overarching society does not buy those false truths, we then bully and ostracize individuals until they worship at the altar of skewed perspective. We may add in the Bible or a draped American flag for effect.
And if the stubborn truths attempt to surface amidst the skewed perspective, we are told by those who are propagating the skewed perspective that they feel their freedom of speech has been infringed upon.
If still the skewed facts cannot be backed up — it’s all a conspiracy, to silence the skewed facts.
The propagators of the skewed facts then submit themselves as the victims in the scenario, for simply being called out on erroneous information.
It’s the greatest marketing scam of all time.
Case in point, the mayor in my hometown of Billings, Montana, is a Caucasian heterosexual male. When the city council convened in early 2020 to decide if the city would consider adopting a non-discrimination ordinance that would protect LGBTQ people, the mayor, Bill Cole, stated amongst other things that the council was “too busy” with other more pressing city business and that he personally didn’t “have the bandwidth” to deal with such a complex issue as forming proper language for an NDO that would work for everyone in the city.
Six other members of the council agreed, and the motion to institute an NDO in Billings, Montana failed. It failed in 2014, and failed again in 2020. It failed even though there was an hour of dozens upon dozens of first-hand testimony from LGBTQ members of the community recounting discrimination, firings, physical abuse in the streets, having to move from residences due to their partner choices — yet the empathy of the majority of the council was not inspired.
It simply wasn’t there, even though a few council members acknowledged that discrimination was wrong and the nebulous “something” had to be done about it.
Yet not on their watch, their docket, or their time.
In fact, one heterosexual woman even got up to speak against an NDO being instituted in Billings, commenting that she was straight, had gay neighbors, and that she didn’t care that they were gay. She recounted a story of all the other heterosexual neighbors loving the gay neighbors. She went on to say that she has never seen any LGBTQ residents discriminated against in Billings. So, since this heterosexual woman has never witnessed anyone being discriminated against, her comment was that discrimination against the LGBTQ community did not exist in Billings, Montana. Therefore, an NDO was unnecessary.
This seemed to be the shared opinion of seven heterosexual members of the Billings city council, that since they’ve personally never experienced discrimination, or witnessed it in action, that the multi-dozens of people bringing their stories forward on record must be incorrect about their own experience.
That even though these LGBTQ people and allies went on public record for an hour to recount a need for an NDO — some stories quite hair-raising — it didn’t matter. Because these seven people could not feel the urgency of the situation.
What they appeared to feel is the potential of certain constituents in their wards, disapproving of their action to support discussion of an NDO.
Six of the seven council members who did not feel any urgency to address the safety needs of their LGBTQ constituents were heterosexual white males over 50. One was a heterosexual white female over 50.
Two of them identified as Christian.
The mayor of Billings even went on record saying that he found it odd that the people in the LGBTQ community who were coming forward with their stories of being fired, beaten up, and discriminated against, did not seem to give any consideration at all to how an NDO would affect all the people of faith in Billings.
In order to substantiate his narrative that an NDO was not necessary, the mayor framed up the Christian heterosexual majority of Billings, Montana to be a potentially victimized minority.
Never mind actually dealing with the folks who had truly been victimized in his community.
Again, skewing the facts and skewing the perspective are part of creating the false narratives that support our lack of empathy and our emotional unwillingness as Americans to help others who may differ from ourselves.
Our fear of being seen by our peers as “different” is far more terrifying to we Americans than losing our souls to apathy.
We have truly become a veneer society. Yet the veneer is peeling, and this is terrifying to millions.
Here is an uncomfortable fact, a truth that often inspires severe reactions from especially Caucasian peoples in the Unites States of America. It’s my belief that this severe reaction comes from a deep inner condemning sense of guilt, a knowing was that this truth may apply to each one of us, on some level:
Emotional laziness and apathy are the cancer that infect the very fabric of the American body. Until we, as an American society, are willing to believe that we have an illness in our very bones, an illness that many can’t see or don’t experience, yet like a cancer, is silently sneaking unfelt through every organ of our Republic; an illness that is slowly killing us; until we believe this diagnosis, and take steps to cure these ills — denial, apathy, bitterness, anger, hubris, entitlement, privilege — we will continue to rot from the inside out.
No one cheats death. Not even a Superpower called America.