There Can Be No Unity If We Can’t Feel Each Other’s Pain
Empathy is the only way to make sure all lives actually matter
As I sat on a bench eating nuts — those who know me won’t find this surprising in the least — an old woman walked by me. Hunched over, she snailed along. I couldn’t pull my eyes away from her. I thought to myself: “She must be in so much pain.” Seconds later, I was hit with a back pain so severe that it made my bum leave the bench.
Months later, on my way to a singing gig, I saw a woman limping. I stared at her leg, and then my left leg gave out. I was in pain, so she and I became twins in the way we walked.
In those situations, I believe I took on another human’s physical pain.
This does not make me special — well, I am special, but not because of that. We all are.
It just highlights the fact that I am a communal creature. We all are.
I read an article yesterday that echoed my thoughts: It is a human trait to feel for one another — modern society has just forced us to handle everything on our own. In such a perpetual state of overwhelm, we can’t sustainably make room for anyone else’s suffering. We’ve “evolved” into numbness.
An aside: Neurodivergent people who are unable to feel empathy are of course still human. They are just not the norm.
Traditionally, in African societies, the ill of one tribe member was the ill of all. Members of the tribe were attuned to one another. They performed dance rituals to heal — together. They carried each other’s burdens and transmuted them as a group — right away.
People who have not yet been desensitized to their siblings’ dis-ease often find themselves overwhelmed. It leads one to think that being what we commonly call an “empath” is a terrible thing. No, it’s a human thing. We only find it overwhelming, because there is no clear course of action. Action is what chases away the overwhelm. I’ll elaborate on this further a bit later.
North American societies are individualist. This is why empathy isn’t sustainable in this climate. We can’t spend our time suffering for someone else — and yes, it turns into suffering if you don’t know what to do with that pain — when we have our own issues to handle. Most don’t even have time to look at their issues squarely in the face, because capitalism has conditioned us to be obedient worker bees who value overwork over rest and self-reflection.
In an individualist society, you’re told to handle everything on your own, and maybe, if you can afford it, get a therapist. Therapy is great. Handling everything on your own all the time? Not so much. Sadly, not everyone can afford therapy even if it is a healing modality they want to explore. So what happens? Meltdowns. The breakdown of relationships. A feeling of helplessness. Apathy. A lack of social responsibility. The perpetuation of systems of oppression.
As Westerners, one of our problems is that we rarely look to other cultures or creatures for wisdom. Wear a mask like inhabitants of East Asian countries do. No, that would be an absolute infringement of my freedom. The Zulu say: “Ubuntu, which translates to ‘I am because we are.’ What do they know anyway?
Sidenote: Ubuntu symbolises “being human” in the Zulu language of South Africa.
In the West, often, when we do fix our gaze on other cultures, it is to steal, repackage and pass off what we’ve stolen as our own without giving due credit.
That said, let’s think of the ant: It doesn’t care about doing every thing on its own. It is a valuable member of a group. We are no different.
This past month, with all that’s been going on, I’d been feeling physical heaviness in my chest. Every time I’d read of violence inflicted on Black people, I’d sink even further. Two weeks ago, I read a quote that shifted everything for me. It goes: “The cure lies in the symptom.”
So, I started thinking about my heaviness. Why did I feel so heavy? It clicked. I was carrying each and everyone one of those stories inside of me. I was hoarding their loved ones’ pain — and I wasn’t letting go. The problem wasn’t feeling their pain so viscerally. The issue was this: I wasn’t transmuting it right away — like my ancestors did. In our modern societies, those who are tuned into others to such a degree do not have a proper vehicle to deal with their siblings’ pain.
What would have happened had I hopped up and assisted that old woman? Maybe she would have been startled. Maybe she would have screeched in terror. I am a stranger, after all. She and I weren’t community — even though we lived in the same country.
I believe that if we are able to take swift action or devise a concrete plan of action, we’d be able to feel the pain without it debilitating us.
So, I have been taking action. Every time I read a story, I take action right away: sign a petition, email a governor, share, and say a prayer for the person and their loved ones.
I’ve been taking care of myself, which is something else that this modern world doesn’t prioritize enough. This fight for equality for all is a marathon, and we need the endurance for it.
I’ve been building a community so no one has to feel like their burdens are too heavy. I’ve been serving and being served. This made the heaviness and the feeling of overwhelm disappear, because I now fully understand that we were not made to do any of this alone.
Our world is fractured. Yet, I keep seeing social media posts about unity. To me, true unity is indeed feeling the other’s pain. We are not in community if you cannot feel my pain. I am not your ally if I cannot feel yours. If we are truly equals, we should be equal partners in the fight against any and all types of injustice. The painful truth is: The issue is systemic. Police brutality did not start with George Floyd, and it has not ended with him either. This pain should make you jump out of your seat. Empathy should move us to action. If no action is taken, trapped emotions will manifest themselves one way or another.
If you can’t feel another person’s pain on any level (emotional, mental, physical or spiritual), perhaps think about what’s going on in your life that has numbed you to everyone and everything else — unless, as previously mentioned, you have a neurodivergent condition that prevents you from doing so. If you are burdened with your own stress and trauma — and, since we live in this modern society, you’re probably dealing with it all on your own — I get why you can’t see yourself in my pain. It’s self-preservation.
But, understand that it is empathy that moves us to sustainable action. Lots of people were moved to action the first few weeks of the uprising. However, as crickets have now replaced the black squares, I can’t help but think that many simply feared being seen as “un-woke.” Now that the social pressure has lightened, those who were simply hopping on a bandwagon have exited the chat. They never truly felt the pain of the black community.
Side note: I am sure some people are doing the work in real life without broadcasting it on social media. However, since oversharing on social media has been a trend for over a decade, I doubt they are the majority.
How can we stop the numbness and re-attune ourselves to one another without doubling over in pain? Heal your trauma. I’ve been doing so by journaling, identifying familial patterns and exploring ancestral approaches to self-care. Listen. Really listen. Educate yourself. Many activists provide free online resources. Rachel Cargle has curated a list of books pertaining to racial injustice. Address and correct your own racial biases. Expand your scope of influence. Seek community so you never have so much on your plate that you forget you’re human. And, being human means “I am, because we are.” It means your fight is mine too. The above, to me, is the only way to achieve true justice and peace. So, are we really in this together?