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Empathy: what we “can” and “cannot” do

December 11, 2010

(Update: Yesterday a donation from a dear friend tipped me into the 3-thousands! Today’s grand total is $3012.00. THANK YOU FOR THE INCREDIBLE, OVERWHELMING SUPPORT. My target for Christmas day is 3200. I am confident I can make it by then.)


A brief exchange last week with my colleague got me thinking. I’d just casually checked my glucose during a meeting, when I noticed she was staring fixated on the drop of blood I’d so swiftly drawn from my fingertip. “I could never do that,” she gaped.

“You would if you’re life depended on it,” I retorted friendlily as I zipped up my glucose kit.


It was one of those conversations you play over and over in your head, improving with each time the response you could have given – a Seinfeldian “Jerk-Store” conversation, although there was certainly no animosity from either of us in the exchange. On the contrary, it was a completely friendly and innocent interaction with a colleague I simply adore.

And it was the innocence of her remark that has stuck with me, and has bothered me. Why did it hit a nerve? What am I hoping to articulate in the many versions of that exchange I keep replaying in my head?

It’s the ease with which she separates my experience from hers. Does she think that I’m special because I can do this (not that difficult) thing? That I was born with the special ability to handle diabetes, and therefore the ever-so-fair universe deemed it just to give me diabetes?

What if I had said, “sorry, I could never do this thing.” I don’t really have that choice. (I guess I could refuse to treat myself, but it would be sentencing my life to being completely dependent on caregivers 24-hrs a day. That, or death from ketoacidocis.)

I didn’t exactly plan on being the kind of person that tests my own blood some 15 times a day, or gives myself shots casually with every meal. But that’s what is now required of me, and so I do it. I can do this thing.

Does my oh-so-well-intentioned colleague understand that she and I are exactly the same? I wasn’t born with super-diabetes powers, able to “do that,” as she says. I’m just navigating life’s curveballs just like everyone else. Frankly, my curveballs have been pretty light.

But don’t pigeonhole me into an “other” as a way of escaping the challenges of empathy. This could have happened to anyone. Getting diabetes has sucked, and has presented me with obstacle after obstacle. It has also, for the same reason, been oddly wonderful.

And I think about how much I “otherize” other people’s challenges to avoid the challenges of empathy myself. I’m currently watching Band of Brothers, the magnificent HBO miniseries chronicling one paratrooping company through D-Day to the end of the war. The daily horrors those thousands men faced were unspeakable, and the series captures the humanness of these ordinary people so brilliantly, painfully. I could never do that.

That guy a few years back who amputated his own arm to free himself from a glacier. I could never do that. The people I buy groceries from, who came to this country without knowing a word of either language. I could never do that. The schizophrenic man who sleeps in the Royal Bank ATM kiosk around the corner from me, asking for spare change. I could never do that.

Empathy is hard. It forces intimacy and vulnerability, and those things can hurt. What I’ve learned from last week’s little exchange with my colleague, is how easy it is to rationalize our way out of the challenges of empathy. I will try continually to remember this: all people are the same, and how people navigate their hardships is always, rightfully, miraculous.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 11, 2010 4:49 pm

    Great blog. You gotta do what you gotta do.

  2. December 12, 2010 11:17 am

    I was one of those who said, “I couldn’t do that” when I first met a Type 1 when I was 12. I was a confirmed needle-phobic. Famous last words. I’m now LADA – Adult Onset T1 (age 25 with a very long honeymoon after that). I sure had to eat those words, even though I took quite some convincing that I needed insulin. Now on a pump. Who’da thought?

    I’m still needle-phobic, but only when someone else comes at me with one.

    I’ve often had people say to me, “I couldn’t do that”. When you have to, you find the strength to dive in. The alternative doesn’t appeal to most.

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