Empathy is a long climb

Empathy is a long climb January 3, 2013

A year after suffering a major stroke, Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., spoke with Natasha Korecki of the Chicago Sun-Times.

“The left side of his face is stiff,” Korecki writes. “His speech is occasionally halting, as though his thoughts are racing ahead of his words.”

Kirk returns to the Senate this week and says his experience has given him a new urgency regarding the needs of stroke victims and others relying on Medicaid. The senator:

[Plans] to take a closer look at funding of the Illinois Medicaid program for those with have no income who suffer a stroke, he said. In general, a person on Medicaid in Illinois would be allowed 11 rehab visits, he said.

Illinois Republican Sen. Mark Kirk climbs the stairs of Chicago’s Willis Tower during a charity event in November. The senator is recovering from a major stroke he suffered in January 2012.

“Had I been limited to that, I would have had no chance to recover like I did,” Kirk said. “So unlike before suffering the stroke, I’m much more focused on Medicaid and what my fellow citizens face.”

Kirk has the same federal health-care coverage available to other federal employees. He has incurred major out-of-pocket expenses, which have affected his savings and retirement, sources familiar with Kirk’s situation said.

It was last January when Kirk was initially hospitalized after a bout of dizziness. He has since endured aggressive rehabilitation, including considerable time on the treadmill, which he calls “the dreadmill.” He still suffers from paralysis on the left side of his body, and he plans to get around some of the time by wheelchair when necessary.

… Physically, he revealed more symptoms; his left arm lay limp at his side. He wore a brace on his left leg. As the interview wore on — his last one of the day — it appeared more laborious for him to speak. He took deep breaths and spoke softly.

Harold Pollack says these are “wise words, sadly earned“:

Kirk required aggressive rehabilitation services at one of America’s finest facilities for patients recovering from stroke. Such a profound physical ordeal – and one’s accompanying sense of profound privilege in securing more help than so many other people routinely receive — this changes a person.

Politicians and policy analysts often speak in the abstract about difficult tradeoffs and the need to trim waste in programs such as Medicaid. I’ve expressed contempt for conservatives who conduct such conversations at such very great personal distance from the people intimately affected by service cuts in essential programs. Of course, we liberals conduct many of these same conversations at the same psychological distance, too.

Caring for my brother-in-law Vincent has certainly changed my perspective. Whatever the issues are, they aren’t about some group of faceless other people anymore.

Vincent, intellectually disabled since birth, has not physically suffered in the way Senator Kirk has. He does face other challenges. Vincent is, officially, a pauper. He swipes his food assistance and his Social Security over to the group home that provides for his daily needs.

This is one way to learn empathy. It’s one way to learn anything — the hard way.

The past year has been a gruelling struggle for Mark Kirk, one I can only imagine because I’ve been fortunate not to have (yet) faced such difficulties. I can only imagine, and so I have to imagine. And to listen. Because imagining and listening are the only ways to learn empathy without learning the hard way.

Steve Benen is hopeful that Sen. Kirk’s hard-won wisdom will help to temper his party’s approach to Medicaid:

Given his party’s desire to cut Medicaid, the senator is likely to bring a critical, first-hand perspective that should help influence the debate. Kirk will be able to offer insights his colleagues need to be aware of.

Perhaps by listening to his story, Kirk’s colleagues will be able to learn what he has learned without having to go through a similar struggle themselves. Benen continues:

I do wish, however, that we might see similarly changed perspectives without the need for direct personal relevance. Many policymakers are skeptical about federal disaster relief until it’s their community that sees devastation. They have no interest in gay rights until they learn someone close to them is gay. And they’re unsure of the value of Medicaid until they see its worth up close.

Rejoice with those who rejoice. Mourn with those who mourn. That’s all that keeps us from having to learn about rejoicing and mourning the hard way.

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  • Don Gisselbeck

    We should start a pool for how long til the predator class and its sycophants start trying to recall Sen Kirk.

  • Dale

    They marched right past Bob Dole, sitting in a wheelchair, as he silently pleaded for them to approve the UN treaty on the rights of the disabled. And they said no.

    I am not confident that Kirk’s wisdom will have much effect on other Republicans.

  • I’m inclined to agree with you.  I suspect there will be lots of talk about bootstraps, and many will point out that Kirk managed to find other ways to fund his recovery, “proving” that everyone else could do they same.  It would be a Grade A douchebag move on their part, but that’s not hard to imagine.

  • I think this ties in to a theme we keep revisiting in the comments, how the religious right hates imagination. This isn’t just something to pity them for; it’s a political issue. So how do we get people who have been taught to hate and fear imagination to start using theirs consciously?

  • esmerelda_ogg

    I hope we’re all wrong and Fred is right, but I have to agree that the most likely result of Kirk’s change of heart (and policy) is that he’ll be booted out by his own party – come the next primary, they’ll probably refuse to fund his campaign and run a Real True Conservative against him. Because he wants to coddle Those People, ya know.

  • Make it personal. It’s easy to demonize strangers, the faceless horde, the bicoastal elitists, the grubby welfare moms. It’s a lot harder to look someone in the eye, someone you’ve known and worked alongside for decades, and spew that crap at them. Certainly, it’s still possible to do that, but it’s a lot more uncomfortable.

    As far as the “bootstraps” thing, it really depends on how Kirk himself approaches this issue when he talks about it with other Republicans during the next debate over spending cuts. If he discusses it this way, “Most people don’t have the resources that I have…” it will shake out a lot differently than if he starts it this way, “See? I was able to make ends meet, so should everyone else!”

  • Nomad

    And it seems to have taken being tortured as a POW to make John McCain take a stand against torturing our POWs. Principles don’t exist to these kinds of people, only degrees of self interest. In my hobby of arguing in favor of equality for blacks and gays it never fails that eventually my Internet opponent will assume that I must be, myself, black or gay, because they can’t apparently imagine believing that something is right unless it is something you would personally benefit by. I admit it was fun watching that one cretin pivot effortlessly from “you must be arguing this way because you feel like a victim” to “you must be arguing this way because you feel guilty of victimizing others” when I mentioned that I was not in fact gay.

    Anyway, while Fred advises that empathy is the easier way to learn he seems to have forgotten that that is now officially a dirty word to the GOP, a character defect to be railed against.

  • LL

    Yeah, me either. 

  • esmerelda_ogg

    (Empathy) is now officially a dirty word to the GOP

    Come to think of it, you’re right – I had forgotten the performance they put on several years ago scoffing at Sonia Sotomayor for being guilty of empathy.

  • Being a veteran, however, hasn’t prevented McCain from killing veteran’s benefits. He thinks war vets should just marry rich, like he did. 

  • AnonymousSam

    I feel as though I should have more to say on the subject, but all I can do is wish Kirk a successful recovery.

  • Flying Squid with Goggles

    Empathy may be a long climb, but it is the best climb we can undertake.

  • Patlebar

    What scares me about talks about the safety net, and other things like union busting and government workers’ pensions, in America is that people use “They haven’t suffered enough during the recession” as an argument. For far too many people, causing hurt is not a means, but an end. It’s a touted feature, not a bug, of the Republicans’ economic plan.

  • They marched right past Bob Dole, sitting in a wheelchair, as he
    silently pleaded for them to approve the UN treaty on the rights of the
    disabled. And they said no.

    They what?

    Christ, what a bunch of callous jackasses.

  • I find it particularly symbolic.  Bob Dole represents the old-school Republicans, the ones willing to be statesmen and actually do the job of governing the country even when that means compromise.  The people walking past him?  A coalition led by Rick Santorum, representing the new Republicans more interested in drumming up drama for fundraising than actually getting stuff done.  

  • Carstonio

    I doubt it’s that simple. The Santorum coalition is very likely dominated by LB readers, or at least by people who share LaHaye’s combination of Bircherism and PMD. They probably view the treaty as another step toward an Antichrist one-world government.

  • J_Enigma23

    “They probably view the treaty as another step toward an Antichrist one-world government.”

    Which to them, is a good thing. After all, that means Jesus comes home, and they go away, and they get to gloat about the rest of us non-believers suffering at the hands of their petty and wretched little god.

    But yet, they prove they don’t believe it, time and time again. They run towards it when it’s politically convenient for them to do so, but run from when it’s not. If they truly believed that, there’d be a unanimous vote, since it’d hasten the arrival of the end times. Furthermore, they wouldn’t even trying, since they know that it’s going to happen anyway and they know that defending against it won’t do any good. It’s a futile effort.

    Or if they do believe it, and I’m sure there are some who do, it’s one of the most phenomenal cases of blackwhite I’ve ever seen, caused by a SEVERE degeneracy of critical thinking facilities. Big Brother would be proud.

  • frazer

    It’s called “liberal for a day.”  You only care about the meeting the needs of others if you’ve had first-hand experience of them.

  • banancat

     The cynical side of me thinks this is exactly the case with Chris Christie making such a big deal about getting help to victims of Superstorm Sandy.  If it had happened to a different state, I wonder if he’d obstruct the bill just like many other Republicans.

  • It kind of reminds me of Rep. Peter King throwing a temper tantrum over Speaker John Boehner’s decision not to call for a vote on Sandy relief.

    Seen here (video), where he accused Boehner of stabbing a knife in the back and calling for donors to stop donating to the ‘GOP Party’.

    Like many Republicans, King only opposes government spending on stuff that he, personally, doesn’t care about. When it’s his constituents getting battered by hurricanes, all of a sudden Big Government should swoop in to rescue him — all of a sudden, the party of “empathy is a dirty word” is supposed to become “‘Republicans shouldn’t turn their backs on people who are starving and freezing.’ 

    (I actually think that King’s statements are 100% correct – Republicans do in fact enjoy fundraising from wealthy New Yorkers while at the same time routinely dismissing people who live there as being ‘not real Americans’. The fact that it took until now for him to notice is what’s pathetic, as is the fact that in a few weeks he will likely forget about all of this and go back to his anti-Muslim Crusade. But it’s nice that he’s managing to scrounge up some decency today.)

  • Although I would consider “liberal for a day” somewhat of a misnomer.  After all, it’s not the amount of time they feel that way, but the narrowness of its scope.  Actually, in considering alternate nomenclature, “special interests” came to mind, which might explain a lot about why conservatives seem to consider them something to sneer at, and therefore sling the label at so many causes they dislike.

  • Tangentially, are there two Rep. Kings now, or recently?  I thought I remembered the one who was holding hearings about some crazy Muslim conspiracy or something being from Iowa, but it sounds like you’re talking about one from NY, and there are many ways I might be misremembering the Rep. King I’m thinking of.

  •  There’s a Steve King from Iowa (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steve_King) who is one of the more loony Republican reps; he can’t stand abortion, immigrants, and a bunch of other things. He’s a balding blondish guy. Then there’s Peter King from NY, who’s dark-haired and seemingly only REALLY bonkers about Muslims. He’s the guy who’s held hearings about Muslim radicalization. The NY King weighs a good 50 pounds more than the Iowa one, too.

  • Yep, which is what Kevin Drum wrote on the subject. 
    I’m glad for his sake that Senator Kirk has recovered as well as he has, and it’s nice that he wants to try to help others who have suffered as he has, but I’m not terribly hopeful that this newly-discovered empathy will extend out especially far.

  • Barry_D

     “Make it personal. It’s easy to demonize strangers, the faceless horde,
    the bicoastal elitists, the grubby welfare moms. It’s a lot harder to
    look someone in the eye, someone you’ve known and worked alongside for
    decades, and spew that crap at them. Certainly, it’s still possible to
    do that, but it’s a lot more uncomfortable.”

    See Senator Dole, above.

  • Barry_D

    Over on another blog, a commenter used the term ‘Miss America empathy’ for this.  Just as each contestant has their pet charity/cause, each Republican Senator is allowed one very small item of humanity, which is always due to personal impact.  

  • Ross Thompson

    The cynical side of me thinks this is exactly the case with Chris Christie making such a big deal about getting help to victims of Superstorm Sandy.  If it had happened to a different state, I wonder if he’d obstruct the bill just like many other Republicans.

    Up until Sandy hit, Christy made several attacks against Obama. And then, when FEMA started their disaster mitigation, he suddenly realised what a great statesman Obama is, and got pissed off at Fox News for suggesting the government’s response was a cynical photo op, and by the way, what can you do to help Romney turn this to his advantage?

    I’m pretty sure that, if it hadn’t happened to him personally, he’d be marching with the rest of the GOP to boo precious dollars being spent to save mere human lives.

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    Michael Moore once jokingly (I _think_…) said we all needed to pray for every possibly calamity to befall Republicans, just so they could have some empathy for other sufferers beaten into them.

  • This.  What Drum wrote is pretty much exactly what I was trying to say, above.  Not that I thought it unique or any such.

  • I’ve tried making it personal. They just use it as an opportunity to give me an emotional gut-punch. I’m not willing to do it again.

    And I think there needs to be more — something needs to address this root problem. How to get people to stop stifling their imaginations? It’s second nature to imagine to most of us who post here; to create, to bounce ideas off each other, to think up and share stories. To a lot of people, it just isn’t, and they look down on us for being “nerds” or something.

    Maybe some Christian children’s books? Veggie Tales is actually a pretty good wedge into that culture. Though it’s not just right-wingers; Hollywood keeps “rebooting” stories over and over and over again. We need some new stories to spur the imagination.

    I say we go to Mars.

  • Tricksterson

    Not so sure about Christie, especially since his fellow Republicans seem to be doing their damndest to drive him out of the party.

  • Lori


    Not so sure about Christie, especially since his fellow Republicans seem
    to be doing their damndest to drive him out of the party.   

    IDK about that. Just a few months ago members of his party were floating the idea of him jumping into the presidential race via contested convention in order to save them from Romney. That was a dumb idea that was never going to happen, but it hardly constitutes trying to drive him out of the party.

    The attacks on Christy only started after he played nice with Obama in what was virtually certainly an at least somewhat cynical ploy to ensure aid to New Jersey and keep his own approval ratings in the state at an acceptable level.

    I have recently found myself wondering if the light is starting to dawn for Christy and he’s beginning to grasp that he’s in the wrong party. Time will tell.

  • Lori

    For those who have been wondering how Republicans would avoid catching Kirk’s new empathy cooties, I have the answer—angels. Kirk saw angels after he had his stroke.


    Note that he acknowledges that he doesn’t know if the angels were “a dream, a side effect of medication or a near-death experience”. That hasn’t stopped Christianists from being all over this like white on rice.

    So there we have it. They’ll ignore Kirk’s campaign for stroke victims by focusing on his supposed angelic visitation.

  • EllieMurasaki

    He couldn’t have said the angels told him to campaign for disability rights? I realize it wouldn’t be true (even if the angelic appearance was real), but that might get through to the fundies.

    By which I suspect I mean they’d take the remark as proof that the angelic appearance either never happened or was Satan’s angels instead of God’s, but at least he’d have tried to approach them on terms they’d acknowledge, you know?

  • Lori

    Yeah. I can’t really fault him for not tweeking the angel story to better manipulate his audience though. I get the sense that Kirk is truly sincere about this whole thing. He’s telling his story and the effect it had on him, not creating a messaging campaign.

    I do wonder if at some point he’ll notice that the people who are respecting his story on it’s own terms, as opposed to as triumphant “proof” of their own beliefs, and who respond most strongly to his efforts on behalf of other stroke victims aren’t the members of his party.

    I also wonder how Bob Dole is feeling about the GOP these days. In about 6 months Dole & Kirk should get together and compare notes. I’d like to be a fly on the wall during that conversation.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Good point.

  • AnonymousSam

    I’m willing to bet that if he did say the angels told him to mend his ways and give succor to the poor and the disabled, his fellow Republicans would be calling for his resignation within the hour. “He’s clearly had a reaction to the medication. The stroke may have jarred something loose from his psyche. It’s tragic, but these things happen and people lose their mental faculties and can no longer be relied upon. DRAMATIC SIGH.”

    Because oh so often, Republicans are only Christians when it comes to the parts about killing people in the name of an invisible avenger. Visiting the sickly and imprisoned, giving bread to the poor, compassion for others? Clearly those ideas come from some sort of heretical paganism.

  • Tricksterson

    Considering that that was the reaction of many Republicans when Roberts voted in favor of Obamacare I won’t take that bet.

  • PurpleGirl

    Don’t forget that NY’s Peter King, while all crazy about Muslims, did/does support the IRA as Irish patriots. 

  •  I”d forgotten that, since the IRA has diminished (not the REAL IRA, as one of its splinter groups calls itself while still advocating terrorism) and become more a political party than anything else.