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Empathy and the Tyranny of Advice

Empathy and the Tyranny of Advice April 27, 2017

“But have you heard the good news about pinto beans?” joked another.

Yes, I’ve heard of pinto beans. I have an excellent recipe for pinto beans and I don’t mind sharing it with you. It’s simple, only six steps. First, cook your pinto beans according to the bag instructions. Next, pour them in the slop bucket. Then feed them to the hogs, then butcher and smoke the hogs, and then eat bacon. Try it sometime. You can get the beans at Wal Mart, or grow them in your eco garden. Or, at least, you could if you really wanted to.

I wasn’t surprised that writing about poverty leads to advice. I was surprised at the volume, banality and persistence, but not that I got advice. Write or talk about sickness or spiritual dryness and you’ll get advice as well– advice from people who honestly believe that your suffering could end or become “freeing and grace-filled” if you just knew how to suffer right. I’ve had people tell me that I’d stop having bile in my stomach if I put my feet up while on the toilet, that spiritual dryness would go away if I prayed just like they did, and that fibro pain in my legs would go away if I practiced picking up pens with my toes.

Where do these people come from?

Where do they get the idea that spewing advice is kind? And why do they feel so threatened when you try to explain that taking the advice won’t really help?

I think it comes from a good instinct. I think that, deep down, everyone has a sense that life isn’t supposed to be difficult. And that sense is correct. If Mankind had listened to the Father in the first place, I suppose we’d still be living in a bounteous garden without death, scarcity or shame all these years later. And if our whole nation would only turn our hearts and become the generation that truly, truly sought His face, things would be much easier for us. The poor and the suffering we would still have among us, but we’d all see one another as close family and share all that we had. In such circumstances, it would be easy to see our suffering as grace-filled. This is the way it should be, and at some level we all know it. When we see someone in pain and difficulty, we know that that isn’t right. It ought to be otherwise.

The trouble comes when we assume that, right now in this fallen world, it can be otherwise, and that the reason it isn’t is that the victim of that suffering is doing it wrong.  Surely, she wouldn’t be so worried if she learned to see her struggles as a gift. Surely, she’d stop crying if she was sincere enough in offering her pain for the souls in purgatory. Surely, the food stamps would last her the whole month if she knew how to shop properly or forage around a nuclear reactor. She must not have heard of Wal Mart. Master, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?

If we get in that frame of mind, we can become annoying or even downright abusive. It’s our business to empathize, to heal and to comfort people, not to assume they’re suffering because they’re too stupid to know how to go shopping.

If we have the courage to admit that the world is fallen and oftentimes suffering is inevitable, I think we’ll lose the urge to try to make others’ suffering go away by assuming they’re stupid. We’ll be able to empathize. Out of our empathy we would ask, “how can I help?” And then we would do it. Even if it wasn’t what we had in mind. Even if it was more costly or complicated than mentioning Wal Mart. Even if there was nothing we could do but remain present, silent at the foot of the Cross like Our Lady.

Suffering is inevitable. You can’t make it go away by doing the right thing, and certainly not by telling others what to do.

When we accept this, we just might be able to help.

Though, if I might make so bold: you really shouldn’t forage for food around an old nuke.

(image via Pixabay)

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