A Lesson in Empathy

 “I used to pride myself on my independence, now I am afraid

to go on walks in the evening, to attend social events…

where I should be comfortable.  It is embarrassing

how feeble I feel, how timidly I move through life,

always guarded, ready to defend myself, ready to be angry.”

~~~~~

I am blind—a blind social worker working with people who are blind.  I read the above passage assuming a perspective of shared vulnerability, for I hear these words, or words like these, from people struggling with vision loss.  I empathize, not only as a social worker, but as one who lost connection and forfeited the belief that I was entitled to a full life. Blindness is trauma and its expression of anxious apartness is as universal as sight is individual.  But the above passage was spoken, not by a young blind woman, but by a college-aged victim of date rape.

I hear her and know I can draw parallels with blindness but I prefer to relate through our mutual loss of the inherent right to a future without fear of living through a lens that sees us as deficient. I am her when she says she’s afraid, angry, embarrassed, guarded.  And knowing the source of her trauma, my initial response joins with her outrage.   I am ashamed of my perpetrator gender.  I condemn the judicial system which endorses a double standard that blames victims and compounds their trauma by insinuating that they were “asking for it.”  I decry the moral judgment of retribution, wherein the victim becomes the accused, a concept that rivals the idiocy of the archaic belief that blindness is punishment for sin.  I shudder for this fragile stranger as friends guess at how to behave and what to make of this “poor girl,” this brave victim of a sexual predator.

The truth is, trauma is a universal experience. It arrives with a gentle tug on your sleeve or between the lines of a diagnosis.  Yet how often we lose our ability to speak of it, to deal with it openly.  “I didn’t want to be known as the girl who was raped,” says Claire Underwood in House of Cards, reinforcing the tragic tendency toward secrecy, suppression and shame.  There are days I wish blindness could be hidden, where I might get a breather from dealing with the glaring, visible  vulnerability.  I have to go on faith that, because physical injury, emotional trauma and social stigma are universally shared,  experiencing these multiple effects of trauma brings unity, empathy and understanding to the common struggle.  This thought gives me courage.

 

[The quotation leading this story was taken from an article in the Chicago Tribune, 6/9/2016, “What my sons will learn from Turner’s Stanford rape case” by Rex W. Huppke]

[Claire Underwood’s quote comes from House of Cards, season 2, episode 4 (Cumulative Episode 17)]

 

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2 Responses to A Lesson in Empathy

  1. bethfinke says:

    Beautifully written. I’ve long thought that losing my sight made me a better listener, not because I can’t see, but because I can empathize. I hope that’s true.

    _____

  2. Andrea says:

    This powerful piece resonates to my core. Jeff, you sure can write! Wow

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