Empathy vs. Sympathy

Let’s play a game. If you were told that you can sympathize with someone or empathize with them, which one would you think is better?

If I looked at most dialogue around emotions I would say the vast majority of people would answer empathy. There are articles and videos about how awesome empathy is.  But lately sympathy seems to be getting the short end of the stick. People often talk about how empathy is better than sympathy, or suggest that sympathy doesn’t have a place in social justice discussions because it’s condescending.

Let’s recap the basic differences between empathy and sympathy, since they’re often conflated and confused. Empathy is when you feel with someone. If your friend tells you that they’re sad because their cat died and you feel sadness as well, you’re empathizing with them. Sympathy on the other hand is having compassion for someone, or feeling something for/towards someone without taking on their feelings as your own. If my friend and I get in an argument and I can eventually understand her position I might be able to sympathize with her, but my own feelings may not change.

For a long time, sympathy was king of the hill, and in recent years empathy has grown to be the prized ability. Especially in social justice circles, I see minority and oppressed individuals pushing allies to try empathizing. The empathy is what allows others to understand the harm of their behaviors, to get motivated to make changes, or to see how sometimes good intentioned behaviors feel awful.

Especially in these contexts, sympathy is considered pitying and useless.

But there are some instances where sympathy is actually incredibly useful, or where empathy isn’t called for at all. I want to take the time to remember what the benefits of sympathy are, and to hopefully tease apart some instances in which sympathy is called for or when empathy is called for.

Now before I get into this conversation I want to make something very clear. No one gets to tell you if your feelings are appropriate to a situation or not. No other person has the right to police your opinions or tell you that you’re feeling the wrong way about something. However it may be true that your own emotions are not helping you act effectively or be safe, and in those cases an outside opinion can be helpful.

First and foremost, sympathy can be a helpful way to build into empathy. If you look at something like police brutality and you don’t yourself feel afraid and angry but you do feel sad for the people involved, that can be a first impetus to start learning more and putting yourself in the shoes of the people directly involved. This is especially one of those circumstances where it could be helpful to not quash sympathy (because it’s not good enough) but to push people to really listen to that sympathy and let it build into empathy.

Now empathy on the other hand is often more helpful when it comes to listening to other people, to building connections with other people, to being supportive. Especially with friends and family, it may seem easy to try to offer solutions when they open up, but sometimes all they want is a little empathy and an open ear. And when it comes to movements that feeling of being listened to is often incredibly important. It gives allies the knowledge to speak up when necessary, but to also understand when they need to be quiet.

While sympathy might push you to listen for a while, it doesn’t get you to internalize the feelings in the way empathy does, which means your feelings will always be taking priority over the feelings of the other.

So when is sympathy actually a better option?

Let me tell you a little story. Once upon a time I was very sick. I had an eating disorder and I was in the process of slowly trying to kill myself. However I didn’t really care. I felt little to no attachment to the world and didn’t have any desire to get better.

If someone at the time had truly empathized with me they would have felt awful, but they wouldn’t have had any motivation to push me into treatment. They would have understood how terrifying the possibility of recovery was, how much I just wanted to be left alone, how much I hated it when anyone mentioned that I should change my behaviors.

So instead of empathizing, my mother sympathized with me. She saw and understood that I was in pain, but instead of feeling that along with me she felt anger towards the eating disorder on my behalf. She felt fear of losing me and a strong desire to protect me. Because she sympathized with me instead of empathized with me, she chose to push me to get treatment and I am still alive and kicking today. Thanks Mom!

There are instances in which a person’s emotions aren’t keeping them safe. Abusive relationships are often (though not always) an example of this. People who are addicted to drugs or alcohol often have this kind of problem. And sometimes these instances are much smaller, like when one friend warns another not to go out with that guy, he’s actually a jerk. If your emotions are telling you that what you’re doing is totally the best course of action and someone you love and trust sympathizes instead of empathizing to tell you “hey, it looks like you’re hurting yourself,” that sympathy is way more effective than empathy.

Now again, it’s probably important to have facility with both skills. If you just sympathize and don’t understand what is really pushing the other person to behave the way they do, you are highly likely to make the situation worse. If my mom had empathized a bit more she might have found some more effective and less scary ways to get me help (or maybe not because I still have no idea what an effective method of pushing someone to get treatment is).

The important part is knowing that empathy and sympathy have different roles. Empathy is often the piece that gets you to listen and understand. Sympathy can be great for integrating your own feelings and perspective with someone else’s. So let’s get a little more love for sympathy.

Empathy and Sympathy: What’s What and Who Deserves It

In this week’s episode of “my boyfriend and I had an interesting discussion and now I will use my online platform to tell him why he’s wrong”, we come to the case of Snape (sorry Jacob, it really just means I find your ideas engaging enough that I want to write about them).

The essence of the question is whether Snape is a sympathetic character or not. I’m going to start with some nitpicky details about empathy and sympathy, feeling bad for someone, condoning actions, and understanding reasons. Because these are all very relevant to why Snape is such a divisive character and how we as human beings can both hold people responsible for bad actions while simultaneously understanding in a deep way why they engage in such actions.

First, the difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy is about feeling compassion for someone, or commiserating when they feel down. It often can have an element of pity in it, but it’s generally the feeling you get towards people when you haven’t experienced the same things that they have. Empathy on the other hand is to put yourself in their shoes and feel what they’re feeling. Now some definitions specify that it also includes compassion, but it seems entirely possible to me to be able to put yourself into someone else’s shoes, feel what they’re feeling, and still be frustrated, angry, or otherwise not compassionate towards that person.

As an example, I can certainly empathize with people who are depressed. I can feel their feelings fairly easily. But depending on their actions, it’s also very easy for me to be angry at how they’re behaving, or feel as if they’ve made bad decisions that are the cause of some of their problems. It’s especially possible for me to understand someone’s emotions and still think that they’ve behaved abominably (for example threatening suicide to keep a loved one close, or blaming someone else for their depression). I’m uncertain whether that means I feel compassion for them, whether I feel bad for that person. I can certainly feel sad for the circumstances that hurt them, or for the brain that makes it hard for them to be happy, but the choices that people make that are actively bad for them and that hurt the people around them are things that don’t make me sad. I do not condone their actions, even if I do understand their reasons.

The long and short: being able to understand how someone is feeling and why is not the same as feeling bad for someone or even feeling sad about their situation, nor is it the same as condoning the actions that come out of that feeling. Sometimes the ability to empathize with someone in the sense of putting yourself in their shoes can actually make it harder to accept their actions or feelings, as your own choices and reactions would be so much different.

So what on earth does all of this have to do with Snape?

Well I have almost no sympathy for Snape. I don’t feel bad for him, I don’t feel that his story is particularly tragic, I certainly don’t think he was a hero. I can empathize with him in many ways: it’s hard to have unrequited feelings for someone, he came from a really nasty home, and the Marauders were fairly shitty to him. I know what it’s like to be lonely and socially awkward. All of those things suck.

But the problem with Snape is that all my sad feelings for him dried up round about the time that he called Lily a Mudblood and started spending all his time with the Death Eaters. He made horrible choices that drove away the people who actually cared about him (Lily), and hurt innocent people, felt little to no remorse about those choices, and then stayed bitter at everyone else because he thought it was their fault he was alone (James). Which is why I deeply disagree with people who assert that we should feel really bad for him, that he’s a hero, or that he is the center of a tragic love story.

We only have a little bit of information to go on when it comes to Snape, but what we have indicates that he’s not a very nice person. Lily befriends him as a kid, but he’s mean to Petunia because of her bloodline, and even shows some hesitation about Lily due to her parentage. He continues to show a strong preference for those who will eventually become Death Eaters while he’s in school, including Avery, Mulciber, Evan Rosier, Wilkes and Sirius’s cousin Bellatrix Lestrange. These are the only people we know that he was friends with. While we can’t absolutely make pronouncements about someone based on the company they keep, his use of the word Mudblood as an insult to Lily when she tries to help him, his treatment of Petunia, and his choice of friends don’t paint a rosy picture of young Snape.

So Snape grew up in an abusive household and was bullied when he got to school. These are shitty, shitty things. His response? To double down on some of the most vile aspects of his personality and insult his oldest friend in a racist, horrible way. No sympathy Snape, no sympathy.

The weird part of this is that the flashbacks seem to indicate that Lily and Snape weren’t horribly close at this point in time, yet Snape continues to nurse his crush for Lily, not making any efforts at dating anyone else and appearing to blame James for the fact that he doesn’t get the girl. So where there might have been some sadness for Snape about the fact that he had an unrequited crush, he made 0 attempts to move on, to be nice to Lily, or to take responsibility for the fact that maybe she didn’t like him because he said some utterly horrible things to her.

Some people have suggested that it’s incredibly romantic that Snape continues to care for Lily and acts to protect her son later in life. If this seemed to be a good faith attempt at being a nice person because he cared about someone I might be more swayed to feel sadness about his final fate and loneliness. The problem with that interpretation is that Snape is the one who brings the prophecy to Voldemort, and only gets angry when he realizes that Lily might die too. He goes to Dumbledore only seeking asylum for Lily, even though he knows how deeply she loves her family. And he only grudgingly agrees to care for Harry after Lily is dead (which he’s angry about and seems to have no joy that her son survived). He proceeds to make Harry’s life miserable, out Remus as a werewolf, attempt to subject Sirius to a Dementor’s kiss, and generally act like a petulant five year old because when the Marauders were kids they bullied him.

That’s not to say that their actions were good, but rather that Snape is now an adult who needs to behave like one rather than using his childhood as an excuse to put others in danger. In order to have a measure of sympathy, a person has to be able to grow, or at least attempt to grow over time, hopefully from the bad things that happen to them. Not every experience has to result in a major personality shift into a better person, but responding to hardship by blaming others and digging even deeper into bigotry, loneliness, and bitterness is really not charming.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the Snape redemption narrative is that he claims to love Lily, but proceeds to seriously hate her son. He treats Harry horrifically throughout the books, even after knowing that the supposed love of his life literally gave up her own life for this kid. If Lily were still alive and Snape treated Harry in that fashion, we would clearly understand that he was being manipulative and potentially abusive.

It’s certainly possible to empathize with Snape, to understand how he fell into the path that he did out of shame for his own mixed blood, out of fear of people like James, out of a certainty that no one would love him after he drove Lily away. But with that understanding comes the understanding that Snape made choice after choice that was cruel and unethical, and actually made his situation much, much worse through his own lack of empathy and care towards others. So I have very little sadness left for Snape as an adult who made his own choices and now is suffering the consequences.

Of course there’s sadness for the kid he was before he made all the shitty choices. But as an adult, even when there are bad things in your past, you’re responsible for what you do. And unless you make at least a little bit of an effort not to be an abusive shithead (especially when you’re in a position of power over other people, like a teacher with power over kids like Neville), you become at least somewhat responsible for how bad your life is.

I hope it’s obvious at this point that I’m not just talking about Snape. All of us have shitty things in our lives. Some people manage to turn out decently, or at least make the old college try to get better. Not everyone is capable of getting over all their baggage. That’s ok. The problem is when someone unrepentantly blames their past for their bad actions, or when they don’t even make an effort to deal with the bad things. It’s important to find the balance between empathizing with someone and understanding where they come from, while still holding them responsible for what they’re doing now. That’s where Snape becomes informative: I see bits of him in lots of men who have been hurt in the past but who use that hurt to turn against other people. And I no longer have sympathy for how much they’re hurting because they have actively made it worse, held on to the hurt, and probably caused a fair amount of it.

None of this means that someone who’s brought pain on themselves doesn’t deserve respect or to be treated decently. But they do deserve to be held responsible for their actions.

 

Intersectionality in Animal Rights

Last night I had the most stressful job interview in the world that also happened to be an interesting discussion. I was interviewing with an animal rights organization, and one of the questions that they asked me was how the animal rights movement might be able to grow/what they should change. I responded that I believe intersectionality was important, and that looking for ways to work with other movements was a good way to move forward, especially in terms of diversity and equity in race and gender.

My interviewer responded that as an organization they’ve made it a point not to take a position on anything but animal rights because they have a diverse membership and don’t want to alienate people who have come to a pro animal rights position through a different path. Of course this makes sense as a stance for an organization to take, but the more that I thought about it, the more I think that any vested interest in treating animals with respect requires us to take a hard look at how we treat every creature, including other human beings.

While I do think it’s possible that one could come to a position of animal rights through a religion that says animals require our protection, I also think that we have to look at the science and the logic behind our positions and that it’s important to be consistent in what we’re saying and believing. If someone says that they believe we should reduce the harm that animals suffer, they are logically saying that they also believe we should reduce the harm that human beings suffer. All of the science that we currently have points towards the fact that human beings are simply part of the spectrum of animals, with no hard and fast distinctions between us and the rest of the animal kingdom.

In order to reduce the harm that comes to animals, we also have to look at the science of pain and consciousness to understand how animals feel, what they feel, and what causes them pain. Even if you are motivated to care for animals by a religious belief, you still have to look at the actual world around you to understand what it means to care for animals. And science tells us that animals can feel pain, can identify themselves as individuals, can make friends and feel love and empathy, and generally have a rich emotional life.

And if you believe that violating these things causes pain and harm, and that causing pain and harm is something that we should not do, you have to apply these understandings to human beings as well. Now each of us gets to apply our values in the way we choose, and we may decide that there is another value that trumps causing no harm (like God’s word that homosexuality is sin), but the only other values that we can derive from the same premises as animal rights are the values that promote negating harm for all creatures wherever possible based upon what we can learn about what causes harm.

Here are things that we do know cause harm: sexism, racism, homophobia, cissexism, ableism, classism…and we know that they do so in subtle ways, including through simple language or jokes, through objectification and exotification, through discrimination or lack of access, through speaking over and ignoring experiences, through rape culture, through the prison industrial complex, through lack of job opportunities and poor wages…many of these things are directly tied to meat eating, such as the low wages for workers in the meat industry, or the symbolic ties of meat to masculinity.

At the very least, listening when people tell you that something you’re doing is hurting them seems like it needs to be a part of your value system if you want to be ethically consistent while prioritizing animal rights. Over and over we hear people saying that ignoring these elements of life harms them and leaves their lives harder and more painful.

I am not suggesting that every animal rights activist needs to put their current activism on hold and jump into all of these other debates. However you should take the time to consider how these fit into your professed set of values and be willing to back up those who ask you for help or consideration when their requests fit within your values. And it is clear that the values that underlie veganism and vegetarianism when it is pursued because of animal rights demand that we treat human beings with respect.

So while politically it makes sense for an organization not to take any stances that might alienate their membership, I also believe that it’s disingenuous to profess a belief that we should minimize the harm our lives create, respect others, and improve the world, while not at least mentioning issues like discrimination, abuse, racism, sexism, and all the other isms that plague our world at the moment. This does not demand that we take specific political positions (after all science and logic don’t lead us clearly in one direction all the time), but rather that we acknowledge that there are many things that harm both humans and animals in the world today and state unequivocally that we do not tolerate discrimination, abuse, cruelty, or violence in any of its forms.

I believe this is one of the areas that we need to take a longer view: while it may be beneficial to gain members who don’t truly believe in respect and minimizing harm but who will help you achieve your goals, this is not going to help the longer goal of fostering empathy and compassion for everyone, animal and human.  In the end, it might undermine your goals: if a church changes its position you may lose those members, but if you gain members because they have come to an ethical conclusion through their own rationality, they are much less likely to change their opinions based on the teachings of others. We may be watering down our message in order to appeal to more people, when we should be strongly advocating for respect on all levels.

I Am Not A Puzzle to Be Solved

Note: I do not mean this post to be a criticism of my parents or any of the other people in my life. I know that everyone is doing the best they can in the relationships that they have.

One of the things that I have come to value most in relationships is honesty and vulnerability, particularly the ability to be straightforward and ask questions. I have learned to appreciate this because in many cases, arguments or disagreements can be solved simply by finding out what the other person is actually thinking or feeling. More often than not, brainstorming solutions together will solve the problem.

Unfortunately, this is not the way that we’re taught to interact with people. From the time we’re little, we’re treated as little puzzles that need to be solved, as if there’s some code that can crack the behavior of a small child and get them to do what you want. I think that my parents did a fantastic job raising me, but even they bought into this mentality in some ways. When I’ve spoken to my parents about their techniques, my mother has told me things like “If you keep a kid on a schedule, they’ll be much less cranky” or “If you ignore a kid who’s throwing a tantrum they’ll stop”. Now these are effective techniques, and for new parents they can be a godsend, but unfortunately they don’t do much to validate the actual feelings of the child involved or teach the child what to do when they’re feeling overwhelmed or upset.

In contrast, I’ve been reading Libby Anne’s blog lately and there has been a surprising amount of content about treating your child as a real human being with legitimate needs and wants and the amazing returns that she’s gotten as a parent by adopting this technique. This involves validating a child’s emotions, trying to communicate and compromise where possible, and explaining why the answer is “no” when the answer has to be “no”. Instead of coming up with a series of tricks that will have a certain effect, Libby Anne prefers to work with her children to identify their emotions and brainstorm solutions so that in the long term they will learn how to manage those emotions themselves.

Unfortunately, most parents work by trying to devise methods to get their children to a certain behavior, rather than working with their children to create healthy behaviors and tools to live well. The most obvious and harmful example of this is corporal punishment: if you beat the child then they’ll do what you want and learn to do what you want them to do. But we all do this to some extent or another. Think of the magazines that boast “this quiz will tell you if he likes you” or “10 ways to tell if your relationship will last”. Every teenage girl has engaged in this behavior: trying to discern what the text means, trying to “unlock” the secrets. And media is even worse when it comes to portraying women (they’re a mystery!  A complete mystery! Buy her things to unlock the secrets!).

Friends do this to each other as well. There are “rules” to friendship (e.g. it’s against the rules to date your best friend’s sibling). Dating relationships are potentially the worst culprits. While many people say that they value communication, it is still all too common for people to try to figure out how to get their partner to act differently while not actually talking to their partner about what’s bothering them. “Nice guys” are a prime example, but I’ve been known to do this as well, thinking things like “If I just don’t speak up ever about what’s bothering me then they’ll think I’m nice and want to be with me forever” or “I’ve already texted x times and they haven’t texted back. Is it against the rules to text again? What are they trying to tell me? Do they hate me?” It’s a process of both mind-reading and personalization, in which every action must mean something about you and in order to crack the code you need to behave just so.

Unfortunately, human beings are not puzzles. There is no secret combination of words and presents that you can present to someone in order to unlock their love or kindness or good behavior. When we approach children in this fashion, we teach them to approach all relationships like this. And when we do this, we set them up for all kinds of problems. If relationships are about getting the other person to behave in the way that you want them to (whether that’s them being happy or that’s them doing whatever you want), and the way to do that is to find the “correct input”, then you end up with problems like people thinking they’re owed sex, or people believing that they’re allowed to do whatever it takes to get the result they want.

It can also lead to the flip side: people assuming that if others aren’t ok then it’s their fault, people thinking they have to manage the emotions of others, or people who have never been taught appropriate ways to deal with their own emotions because they themselves have always been “managed”.

For me personally, I have found that thinking there are things you should be able to do that will make feelings or bad situations stop has led to really bad behavior. It didn’t teach me that sometimes things had to feel bad and that I would get through it. Even worse, it let me stay in relationships that were abusive and painful because I felt that if I simply found the right combination of actions, the other person would stop behaving the way they did.

More than anything, I wish that I hadn’t been convinced that there was a right way to behave towards others when I was first forming my identity. I can no longer tell whether I became sexual because I wanted to, or simply because I thought it was what you did with someone you loved and it would make them happy. I followed the scripts that others told me would work, the scripts that not only were supposed to make the other person happy but were supposed to make my emotions work in a certain way. I never felt that I could openly speak about what I wanted or didn’t want, and when I did say no to things there were reasons that had to be stated (because otherwise it will be rejection and that makes the other person sad: you didn’t input correctly). I wish that I hadn’t been spending my time trying to suss out how to get others to act, but rather taking the time to think about what I actually wanted and what I care about.

When I was asked recently about how I would be in a relationship without feeling that I needed to manage the other person, I replied that I can’t even imagine what I’m like just being myself in a relationship. This is a good part of why I’m finding the question of identity and orientation very confusing. I feel like every relationship I’ve been in, I’ve acted the way I felt would make the other person happy, repressed the parts of myself that wouldn’t have the right reaction, and said things I didn’t wholly mean becuase it was what you were supposed to say in order to make another person smile. I went through grandiose gestures of romance because that was what it meant to “be in a relationship” that was how you were supposed to show your love and if you did that then your relationship would be good.

All of these ways of approaching relationships are about looking at outward signifiers (what action did I take and what action did I get in response) instead of actually trying to get information from each person about what’s happening internally. I want to be honest in my actions instead of spending my life trying to manage exactly the right stimulus to garner the right response in people I care about. If I have children, I don’t want to try to come up with tricks to get them to behave well. With myself, I don’t want to bypass what my emotions are telling me by coming up with some action that shuts off the bad feelings. I am not a code to be cracked. I don’t need anyone else trying to figure out how to fix my feelings, nor do I need to fix myself. I need honest communication that asks how I can recognize my emotions, understand why they’re happening, and deal with the source of the problem.

Being the Wet Blanket

Feminists are often accused of having no sense of humor, of having a stick up their asses, or of being curmudgeons. And I’m going to be honest: many times I feel like I am the wet blanket. I can’t enjoy many of the movies and TV shows that I used to because I notice how screwed up they are, I feel uncomfortable around many people because of the ways in which they joke or the words that they throw around, and I often have to tell people that they really aren’t as witty and charming as they thought they were, they are in fact just being oppressive assholes. It’s not fun to have to take on this role. It’s not fun to have to “ruin” people’s fun. I often find myself feeling guilty or wondering if I’m oversensitive or too delicate in my sensibilities. But there are some good reasons to continue being the wet blanket, and perhaps these reasons can keep you going through the times you feel like everyone hates you for speaking up.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember in “wet blanket” situations is that you are not in fact ruining anyone’s fun. Their fun has already been ruined by the fact that it’s come at the expense of someone else. If you were to walk up to a bully punching a smaller child and stop them from hurting that child, you wouldn’t feel guilty for ruining their fun: you would know that their fun was inappropriate to begin with. You are doing the same thing when you call someone out for sexism, racism, or other oppressive behaviors. Those behaviors just as actively hurt people as the bully physically beating someone. They hurt people through the violent norms they enforce, through rape culture, through the wage gap, through hate crimes…these are realities that are linked to the jokes and the casual conversations we have.

Many people also accuse feminists of being incapable of having fun, not just of ruining the fun of others. I’d like to propose a thought experiment to explore this claim. Let’s imagine we live in a society in which brutal torture was normal. It was even considered fun. People publicly tortured others to get kicks, and it was often viewed as a show: going out to the torture. Say you were an individual living in this society and you couldn’t bring yourself to enjoy any of this. You go out to the torture and you look at your friends and say “this is wrong! We’re hurting people!” They respond by asking why you can’t have any fun. Looking at a society like this, we would recognize that the person who is unhappy is actually perceiving the situation more accurately and with more empathy than the other individuals involved, and that most likely they could have fun if it were in a non-harmful way.

Now obviously this is hyperbolic. But as I mentioned before, many of the things that people view as fun, joking, or entertainment do in fact contribute directly to the harm of others. Perceiving this connection and being upset by it is not an indication that one has no sense of fun: rather it’s an indication that one has an active sense of empathy and a clear perception of the situation. I would bet that if you asked most feminists whether there things in life they enjoyed they would say yes. They’re just probably not the things you enjoy. I myself for example deeply enjoy My Little Pony, chocolate, swimming, and taiko drumming just to name a few. But I attempt to find things to like that don’t hurt others. Being upset by bad behavior is not an indication that you’re incapable of enjoying things. It’s an indication that there’s something wrong with the things people are asking you to enjoy.

People who are labelled as “wet blankets” are often those who perceive something that others don’t. As an example, we have some people at my work that want to do and try everything. We need our resident wet blanket to say “stop. Let’s think about what will happen if we do this”. In many cases this is about practicality, however it can also be about ethics and empathy. I want to be the person who asks others to stop and consider the implications of their actions because that person is the one who keeps our world running and functional. That person is necessary and improves things in the long term. They don’t necessarily want to stop what you’re doing, but they do want you to think it out first and make improvements to it. I have no problem with you writing that song, but I think it would be a much better song if it didn’t promote rape culture and I’ll tell you that.

But more than anything, when you feel you’re making a big deal out of nothing, remember that your emotions are valid. If you are upset or hurt by something, that is valid. And it is also valid to ask people to stop doing things that hurt or upset you, even if they don’t understand why. Particularly when you  know that others are hurt by something, you can feel confident that your discomfort is not out of line or irrational: it is necessary.

So yes, I will happily take the label of wet blanket if it means that I am making people more aware of their actions and the implications of their actions, if it means that I’m ending “fun” that is harmful and cruel, if it means that I’m standing up for my own needs and the needs of others. If that’s being a wet blanket and ruining your fun, then you’re doing fun the wrong way.

Fat Stigma: Change of Perspective

Hello all! Today’s post is going to be short and sweet because it’s my birthday and I said so. This week is fat stigma awareness week, and so I wanted to talk a bit about my own experience of fat stigma through the lens of something that happened to me this morning. I am well aware that I have internalized a lot of fatphobia and it’s something that I fight against as often as possible.

This morning while I was on the bus, someone who was overweight and using a walker got on. I noticed that I instantly questioned why she needed the walker: whether it was just because she was overweight, or did she have “actual” health problems. Particularly because she left it at her seat and went back to pay the bus driver, I was judgmental. I noticed this and told my brain to shut the fuck up because it was none of my damn business and I didn’t need to police anyone, but I knew that I was still judging her.

This woman was sitting next to me, and as the bus went around a corner her purse fell off the walker and onto the floor in front of me. I bent down to pick it up, and as I did her wallet fell out and some business cards spilled onto the floor. I apologized profusely and picked them up for her, and as I was doing so I noticed that one of them was for The Emily Program, the same place that I get my eating disorder treatment. Instantly any judgment I had for this woman was gone and all I wanted to do was hug her and punch her eating disorder in the face. I wondered what else her eating disorder had taken away from her besides her mobility and I wished I could help. It was amazing how having one thing in common with this woman suddenly humanized her. It was a major lesson for me. Despite how hard I had told myself to judge her not before, it was only once I had the tiniest glimmer of understanding that she struggled that I could have real empathy. And that’s a problem.

From now on, I’m going to imagine that every person I come across who is different from me has something written on a card that tells a bit of their story. I’m going to imagine seeing it fall to ground and imagine how it would change my perspective and give me sympathy for them. EVERYONE has those things. We need to learn how to see them.

What You Know: Reading Fiction and Nonfiction

I was talking with a colleague the other day about loving to learn and about what kinds of things I like to learn. He mentioned that he can’t read novels because there are simply so many nonfiction topics to learn about that he can’t imagine wasting time on fiction. While I can understand the drive to learn as much about our world as possible, I can’t understand cutting fiction out of my life. Most of us understand what we learn or gain from nonfiction: straight facts or insight into phenomena or incidents in the world. However there’s a lot of people who appear to miss the real learning we can do when we read novels.

As a novel junkie, I’d like to take this opportunity to explain how I view fiction as a source of knowledge.

Many people see the arts as beneficial because they allow us to connect to each other, or to feel emotions. These are good things, but they aren’t direct lessons or sources of knowledge. In addition to catharsis or other emotional and/or spiritual (in the sense of connective) elements, there is a little more to fiction. In my mind, the most important thing we can learn from fiction is empathy. When we allow ourselves to enter into someone else’s mind and story, we learn about what it’s like to be another person. We learn about other experiences. We learn how to imagine what things might be like for someone else. This skill provides us with a great deal of straight information, and as we partake in this process in each novel, we gain facts about what it’s like to be each character in the novel. While no two people are exactly the same, these insights can help us connect with real human beings and understand their motivations, histories, and experiences.

In addition, we can also understand a bit of the human psyche by reading fiction. A good author will create characters who react realistically to their surroundings, who have understandable and realistic emotions and motivations, and who make sense as human beings. Spending time in someone else’s head can help you not just to understand a specific type of person, but to understand some basic human psychology. Again, this provides you with some additional empathy.

Depending upon the genre, you may also learn something about history, a certain place, a particular incident or phenomenon, or a group of people because of the setting. Again, many fiction authors spend a good deal of time researching and understanding the setting of their novels so that they can create something that is realistic and will teach you through the story.

But there are more difficult things you can learn by reading novels. Novels are made up of characters facing difficult situations. This means you as the reader are asked to contemplate those difficult situations, and you are left with a deeper understanding of ethics, as well as your own character. You can find new roles models (I learned feminist ideals from many of my childhood and teenage reading), learn what sort of person you don’t want to be, or imagine ideals in things like friendship and family. Literature often tackles deep philosophical questions, and while you may not directly discuss them while reading, you do still find yourself thinking about them and wondering what your own reactions might be.

Examples of these issues from books I’ve read:

1.What does it mean to lie?

2.When should you trust someone?

3.Should men and women be treated the same?

4.How should you treat a friend?

5.Are adults trustworthy?

6.What makes life worth living?

I also have read fiction books that tackled everything from mental retardation to pregnancy to life in poverty to being a rich socialite. You get insight into each of these worlds, you get to inhabit each of these worlds for a time and hopefully understand better the perspectives of individuals in these situations.

In addition, the conversations that arise out of novels and fiction are hugely important to informing our sense of self and our knowledge of the world around us. We see which things we react to and we can begin to understand why when we discuss novels and fiction with those around us. We may gain empathy for one of our friends or colleagues by hearing their interpretation or perspective on a book or movie. All of these things are real and true forms of knowledge: they’re knowledge about what it’s like to experience things, and that is something that you can’t gain from nonfiction.