On Empathy, Apathy and Giving No F*cks

This is heavy.

We as people of color have always known the deeper way to create a language, when an existing language didn’t serve us as we’ve needed it to.

Shit is real.

It has been a frozen thought in this head for more than a few weeks, since the celebrated poet Natalie Diaz (author of When My Brother Was An Aztec) spoke on the topic.

Here is the setup:  Chicago, the last week in July for a week. Poetry Foundation. The National Museum of Mexican Art. Pilsen. A full-on Chicago Block Party with poetry—the 2nd Annual Chicago Poetry Block Party. Todo al puro cien.  I am a working poet. I teach high school, organize literary events and am an advocate for all sorts of human rights. I got to spend time and go to poetry church and listen to craft/organizing lectures on how to build community as a poet, and now, I miss everybody. And I got lost on the subway. Twice.

So Natalie Diaz dropped a thoughtful bomb on us. I was floored. I am still floored.

Her words weigh on me still: “Does empathy stop gesture?” and that “Lexicon is not about witness – we must make up and build our own lexicons.”

Natalie spoke on empathy, (and I am paraphrasing/condensing this), saying that empathy is fake gesture. She posed the question, “Can a person really understand a person without asking about them?”

And my answer is no.

Some people base “feeling” for someone on how they imagine they themselves would feel in that other individual’s place. But there is no real connection built past the surface. We are limited to the idea of what we think we know about a given situation and “put” ourselves in the shoes of the other —not at all looking at how that other person is actually experiencing a thing. (NOTE: when I say “we” here, I am saying a collective society, in general, not people of color.)  

I have found myself in agreement with this idea—empathy is fake. I take it back to one of Natalie’s previous ideas. We have to create or recreate our own languages if we are to survive. We already do this with so many other structures. We have spent more than a few centuries creating a bicultural lexicon.

This is how we translate what we are told by this Eurocentric structure into a bicultural lexicon:

  • Subject Given: This is what Eurocentric structures tell us a thing means.
  • Subject Translated: This is what it really means for the rest of us.

This sat with me on my return to Houston (and yes, I am ok so far from Harvey, another story for another day). I thought of a former student who right now is dealing the best she can with a horrible situation. This young lady’s father is a target for deportation. This looms on her and her family everyday. From the day this child told me of the situation, I have had this constant knot in my throat, this fear, this panic, this anger that balls up inside me. Is this empathy I feel for her? I think of this now as I picture this family and the final outcome. I hate saying “final outcome.” It’s so nice and neat to describe such a shit show.

When this young lady came into my classroom and practically had a meltdown, I hugged this kid and we shared a moment—all I could think of was to tell her about an instance I remembered about a family member who was also in harm’s way of being deported. I only wanted this kid to know that I “felt for her” and I would be there for her any way I could.

After Natalie’s words I thought, was I being fake about how I connected to this kid? I had to reprocess my words to this kid, and therein I figured something out. To simply feel a twinge in the heart and be able to go about the day as if nothing is wrong is simply the truth, there’s nothing wrong. You can simply be. I can walk away, right?

How can a person outwardly show solidarity or care for another person?  I think the answer then is a meaning of empathy: continued actions of care and love.

Let me be clear in this. I do not mean to go rally, go march, go protest for a cause, go vigil, go donate, go build a house, go fundraise for a cause, and yet I do these things. I mean go check in with the person(s) dealing with a thing: a phone call, a hot meal, an invitation to your home, a movie, a coffee, a stroll through the park, a night on the town, a visit to a shelter, to a jailhouse, (whatever floats their boat.)

AND THEN, go do all those other things. Do all these things consistently. A menudo.

Action is needed if you show the person you care. Nada nuevo aquí. Give to someone who is dealing with a thing in ways they didn’t even begin to know you care. This to me is empathy—to feel for a person is to go past the surface level and see what is at the heart of a matter.

It’s exhausting. It’s inconvenient. It’s always there. It’s always too much. Yes to all this.

But here’s the thing: if you already didn’t know that, then that person and that situation really didn’t matter to you to begin with. Move along. You aren’t ready to be a part of the life of that someone, then its ok, just move along. Because someone else is ready to be part of that.

Yes, I realize I sound harsh as hell and that I give no statement or pause for the person who grows slowly into this action of empathy. What you have to realize is that this is just a thought. These are flexible ideas. I know that not all people are equipped or ready to enact such profound support. Sometimes it is not needed. Sometimes the mere gesture and the words said are enough to reframe the world for the affected or afflicted person. It is though the everyday thought, feeling and action given to a person who is living a heavy moment that we begin to change how we see them, see their situation and become a part of each other’s lives. I am not saying to go save folks. Go figure yourself out if that’s what you got from this.

But if you are with this, then do take care, because for some of you, this means you will have to come out of your comfort zones. Am I saying that all the ways you thought you were being empathetic are fake? No, not necessarily. I am saying that there is more to it. There are deeper actions that you need to take, because perhaps, what you know as empathy has only been what you want to know about empathy. I think for empathy to truly work, we have to disturb our sensibilities and reach past ourselves. I see the lexicon of empathy translate itself into love and that love, that binding action of love as a community building.

There is still one last piece to this.

I take you back to Chicago, to Natalie’s talk at Northwestern. I take you back to a funny image. Here we were, an entire group of Poetry Incubator Fellows engaged in a grand discussion on the building of language and lexicons, a people of many backgrounds and fringe groups being led by Natalie Diaz in heavy-lifting exercises of the brain—all in a totally esoteric, academic hall filled with the portraits of past presidents of Northwestern University. They were all white men.

Here we were, a room full poets (mostly PCC and LGBTQ, from all backgrounds of poetry) and we gave no fucks. I mean, we did for like a hot second, but we shook that shit off. We worked.

And then it struck me to ask, to make a note, “What is the opposite of empathy?”  Yo, it’s apathy.

I looked up the antonym of empathy and it hit me as soon as I read “apathy.” If we are rearranging how we view empathy as a surface level thing—as something that can be fake, then can we do the same for the opposite idea? Can apathy be something good? The answer was right there in the room.

We didn’t give a fuck. In essence, we are apathetic. We put aside the imposter feelings (that inadequate feeling, that self-doubting feeling that maybe we shouldn’t be there, that feeling that we aren’t in a space that wants us there) and we pushed on. This was a moment of focused apathy, this very idea of “I give zero fucks.” I knew this as a survival tool.  I have always known this, but I just never connected the two. This is a “new” level to apathy. This is an apathy that empowers. This is something we have always done as people of color.

We have survived on persistence that looks like stubbornness or grit or ganas, and whatever other form of instinct that institutional structures have tried to appropriate from us. The mere idea that we can suspend interest in an inhibiting structure just for the briefest of moments, so that we can move forward, has always been a trait we carry. The act of apathy has never been the negative force we are told it is, rather it is the focalized act that moves us forward. This is how we move. Apathy is an act of defense and even an act of self-care.

Right now, I know a few of you are pulling out your phones or opening up a new tab to look this up to get a precise definition. Go ahead…

¿Listo? Gracias. So follow this…

I do not mean what the dictionary means. Apathy here is not lack of emotion, in which one does not act. No, instead I mean that apathy is an overload of emotion. We have seen this time and again—I can remember a moment in my childhood, soon after Hurricane Alicia ripped through my hometown of Galveston (I write this as Harvey keeps flooding where I live in Houston). We lost a corner of the roof and the ceiling in my room because of the storm. The whole island was out of running water, electricity and August was hot. We were renting a house and the renters didn’t want to pay for the repairs right away—they didn’t have the funds, so my parents had decided that they couldn’t wait for repairs. Off we go to the bank. When my ama and I were at the bank, I remember distinctly the question the bank agent asked:

“Mrs. Mendez, I know I was speaking very quickly about all the requirements of the loan, so I wanted to make sure, did you understand all what I said in English?”

My mother squeezed my hand. I was five. She looked angry. But then, as soon as our eyes met in that man’s cubicle, she smiled and I remember her saying, “I work 12 hour days for doctors in a hospital, señor. You don’t speak too fast for me. I speak two languages. Shut up and keep your money.” And we left. We got the loan from the credit union that same day. But my ama did something I still think about years later. She wasn’t loud. She wasn’t mad, and she wasn’t too foul. She said what she had to say, and she acted like she could care less. My apa called her loca for it. He wanted to go back to the bank and tell the man off, taking the .22 we had in the house. My apa still says “Yo lo iba matar, ese hijo de su chinga madre, ¡a mi vieja asi no se le hable!” Ama didn’t have the time to be bothered with it. There was more to do.

There has always been more to do.

We have learned to navigate a world that continually takes shots at us, that tries to kill us, erase us, one that wears away out our physical state, our mental capacity, our self-image, our livelihoods, or opportunities for advancement and we have been taught to be patient. We have been taught “pick your battles,” to wait for the right moment. But we have also paid attention to our elders, in what they do as well. We pay attention to the moments when the words end and action takes hold.

When a person is worn way down, the reaction is a one of survival:

  • We protect our emotional state by declining to interact emotively and do the damn thing regardless of another person’s feelings.
  • We protect our emotional state by overpowering an interaction emotively and do the damn thing regardless of another person’s feelings.

This is another level of apathy. This is an old way to enact self-care.

When a kid looks apathetic about being told they will serve detention or be suspended if they don’t “act right,” they are enacting a defensive posture, a posture of apathy, a posture of self-care.

When we get to the point of “giving zero fucks,” we no longer want to play in the majority-ruled systematics that try to rule our lives. We are, in fact, announcing that we are creating a whole new set of rules we will abide by. When we care less or care nothing at all about a certain thing, we are in fact giving focused thought and emotion to ourselves. We will not be bound by fear or ramifications or “lo que va decir la gente.” To an extent, this focused act of apathy allows us to grow for the better.

In fact, both of these ideas, empathy and apathy, have always been present. I think about my former student. I know I feel for her, and we are building. I am connected to her family. I check in with her daily and if not, then weekly to see where things stand with her dad’s case, with her studies and now at school, I keep an eye out for her younger sister who is now a sophomore. This is the empathy I am building and in truth, this is what was built from not giving a fuck. I had to apathetically give witness to what this girl’s plight was to my administration.

We had to help her and if they weren’t ready to do anything, I was ready to move forward with whoever was ready to move forward with me—my thought?

“Fuck it. If they don’t move on this, that’s fine, I know who will.”

In the end, the school has supported her and I am grateful. But I have to be vigilant. I have to keep up on how I engage.

We have to be on it all the time. We have to still think about empathy and apathy, always inventing new ways these can be applied. We know what they look like because of the elders that came before us. They have shown us. They have always shown us. All we have to do is sit and be still and watch, sit and listen to how the world has worked and how we have always moved. We have engendered them without giving them a label. But we know these as tools, as skills, as language all our own.

We have always been shown the way to build ourselves up with these ideas, so I don’t know if any of this is new at all and frankly, I don’t give a fuck.

***

Lupe Méndez tweets from @thepoetmendez.

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