2017 minus 16: Limitations and conflations

Posted: 16 December 2016 in 2017 minus

Several (for which I mean lots, no seriously… lots) of my friends have had a ‘bad’ 2016; let’s be honest here: it’s been a long while since I can remember such a large percentage of my friends who’ve had a shitty year. It’s been quite some time indeed since so many of my friends have been so looking forward to a year ending. 

Not just personally, of course; the world is going to shittiest shit in shitty ways that haven’t been seen in decades. But yeah, personally, many people I know have had the shittiest of shitty years. Whether it’s breakups, betrayals, family bereavements, job chaos, or geographical locations that haven’t gone well… Yep, most of us can’t bloody wait for 2016 to be done, dusted, gone, departed…

Now that’s not to say that everyone I know had a lousy 2016; some friends had a fantastic year, an incredibly good one, and I’m genuinely thrilled for them; several friends had children; one couple after several years of trying; I’m hardly going to pretend that 2016 hasn’t been a good one for them. And I hope that 2017 is an even better one for them and it’s at least an ok one for the rest of us. 

But yes, most people I know can’t wait for 2016 to piss off. Thats’ not quite the same thing sas saying they’re looking forward to 2017, though, is it? After all; three weeks into 2017, we get President Trump…

So, if you’re reading this, odds are you’ve had a lousy 2016 and you’re looking hopefully towards 2017 as something to hopefully give you some, well, hope. Thing is, though I might know you’ve not had a good year, indeed, might even know some of your individual circumstances, I’m not sure… no, strike that, I’m quote sure that I don’t have a clue how you feel about it, precisely how bad, personally, you’ve felt in 2017. 

No-one knows what goes on inside other people’s heads and hearts, no mater how much they protest they do. Those who’ve had a lousy 2016, for personal reasons, all have their own reasons for having done, and you don’t get to say that your reasons for loathing 2016 are any better nor more moral, nor more justified, than theirs. 

But everyone does do that, don’t they? Or at least they say they ‘feel the pain’, or share the distress. When they don’t. When friends or even strangers have a rough time, most people conflate sympathy with empathy. They’re not the same. And they shouldn’t be.

I’ve mentioned before that after we lost my late brother, some people said to us that they didn’t know what to say. That was ok, though; the family didn’t know what the hell to say to each other. And while I had no real difficulty hand;ting nor processing the sympathy, what utterly threw me were the people who claimed to empathise. Sorry, unless you’d lost a member of your immediate family, then you couldn’t. You simply couldn’t.

I’ll go even further. You lost a parent? Then sorry, you didn’t have a clue what I was going through, having lost a sibling. Much as I didn’t at that time have a clue what it was like to lose a parent.

And even when I did lose a parent, its highly unlikely that my relationship with my father bore any similarity to that of you and yours. (One of my closest friends lost his father this year, a couple of months back. While he and I are similar in some ways, one of the big differences between us is his relationship with his immediate family and mine with my lot. His are… closer, and let’s leave that there, as I have no wish to publicly discuss mine, really.)

But when we lost Mike, one particular woman said to my mother – they weren’t particularly close, it has to be admitted – “I know what you’re going through…”; but she did know, having lost one of her sons about four years earlier.Penty of others said it; only she was telling the truth. 

The point I’m cackhandedly trying to make here? Unless you’ve actually been through it, you don’t know what it’s like. Oh, sure you can pretend you do. After all, that’s what most writers do. There’s a line about “I’m a writer – I lie for a living.” Dunno who said it originally, but it’s true enough.

But in what we are pleased to call ‘real life’, there are things that you’re never going to truly empathise with someone else about. Sympathise, yes, but empathise, no.

If you’ve suffered from a mental illness, you’re never going to truly understand what it is like never to have done so. And vice versa; if you’ve been fortunate enough never to have suffered from, say, depression, you’re never going to genuinely understand or appreciated what it is to go through it.

I’m not sure how far you can take this, because everyone’s experiences in life are different; even children in the same family have different relationships with the same parents. 

But, say, if you’ve always had money in your life, never had to worry about money ,, you’re never going to truly empathise with someone who has never ‘had money’. And vice versa. If you’ve always  known (or been told) that you’re attractive, you’re never going to understand what it is to have always known (or be told) that you’re not attractive, and to believe it. And if you’ve always known the reverse, you’ll never understand what it’s like to know (or be told) that you’re attractive, and to believe it.

There are limitations to empathy. And while sometimes I think that’s a good thing, especially when acknowledged, more often I think that it’s dangerous, because some people don’t think those limitations apply to them.


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