Where’s the Empathy?

I have to tell you, every twist and turn of this cancer experience always reveals something new.  There is the physical stuff: physiology, biology, and chemistry.  There is the psychological stuff: fear, resolve, sadness. happiness, and uncertainty.  And then there are the intangibles.  You could argue these are part of the psychological, but I disagree.  By intangibles I mean support and empathy, both real and virtual.

Over the last three weeks or so I’ve had the distinct displeasure of witnessing individuals who, on discussion boards, rage and lash out at other people with insulting, judgmental, and patronizing comments.  Online rudeness doesn’t surprise me at all.  Indeed, it’s pretty standard in the virtual world.  When I first used email for a class in college, I was shocked when a classmate of mine, in addressing a woman with whom he disagreed, wrote “See ya!  Wouldn’t want to be ya!”  He was reprimanded (good) and didn’t do it again (even better).  But voicing comments in an online environment–where you don’t have to face anyone head on–is rather easy to do.  You can delete their comments if you don’t like it or even block the person if you don’t want to hear them anymore.  Something you can’t do in real life.

Now, when this happens within a general group where people don’t necessarily have anything in common I can almost see it and I don’t even blink.  This happens on Facebook quite often.  A friend will post a comment, their friend disagrees–you have no idea who this person is–and then you post a comment.  Before you know it the two of you go back and forth throwing shit at one another like monkeys tossing shit at patrons in the zoo.  It’s entertaining (for me), but there’s no basis of commonality between those two or three people to enforce a sense of decorum.

Recently I checked into the Inspire discussion boards.  Inspire is a pretty good site, with discussion boards for any number of topics.  I chose to check in to the Advanced Breast Cancer Support Community.  Every now and then I check in to see if there is something posted from which I can learn.  I often see a link to an article in a publication or a blog, a link to some side effects or a new study that piques my interest.  There are a lot of smart people on there from all over the globe and I like reading their discussions.  I don’t get personally invested in the conversations only because I don’t check them all that often; and up until recently I just haven’t had that much time.

After posting my essays Prognosis and Just, I saw a topic that intrigued me: Why Can’t We Just be Bloody Angry?  This person noted “It’s f****g cancer we’ve got. It’s a mess, it hurts and it is very difficult to deal with. I’m not against trying to cheer each other up and I’m not sad. But some of the stuff on here is very sweet and cuddly and avoids the horrors too.  The thread on practical shared symptoms and solutions are great, especially if you are new to various symptoms and treatments, so more of that please.”

There were some responses that were certainly caring and kind (probably the majority, really), but there were people who responded–women with stage iv breast cancer–and lashed out on this person in a way that jarred me.  One after another responders were scolding the person for being angry.

  • “We don’t need to stay angry.”
  • “. . . you have to get past your anger the same way that the rest of us here have”
  • “Have your pity party once in a while and a good cry in the shower and move on. No one wants to be around you when you’re feeling sorry for yourself so get over it . . . you have what is known as optical rectitus , which means you just happen to have a sh—y outlook on life-and if that is the case you have my sympathy.”
  • “Of course there is anger. I have been very angry but anger solves nothing and is such a waste of time and energy. Do you feel better for your rant? Does anyone feel better for having read it?”

I wrote and wondered where the empathy was among some of these folks?  If someone is angry we know better than anyone how they feel–where was the support, a hand to hold, or someone to just say “I understand.”  Oh sure, there were people who responded that way.  And I’m not implying that people who didn’t are “bad.”  But the exchange reminded me of the reaction Barbara Ehrenreich had in her article “Welcome To Cancerland.”  She posted a message to a Komen message board with the subject “angry” and mentioned some of the debilitating treatments, the “sappy pink ribbons,” and her anger.  She received some support, but some of the responses she received were not unlike the messages of board that I had just read.

  • “I really dislike saying you have a bad attitude towards all of this, but you do, and it’s not going to help you in the least.”
  • “Cancer is a rotten thing to have happen and there are no answers for any of us as to why. But to live your life, whether you have one more year or 51, in anger and bitterness is such a waste . . .”
  • “You need to run, not walk, to some counseling . . . Please, get yourself some help and I ask everyone on this site to pray for you so you can enjoy life to the fullest.”

captureThere were people who were subsequently angry at me and told me to get lost and tried to rip me a new one for my judgmental statements–good luck with that, I don’t much care.  But, frankly, the atmosphere was toxic; one person, acknowledging such, wrote to say how upset she was that she was being insulted just because she was angry at cancer.  After I ducked out the moderators finally got involved and tried to instill some calm.  Good luck.  People were still prattling about anger and how it’s not good for you.

Anger is a human emotion.  It is something that can be healthy to express and explore.  In my own situation anger waxes and wanes.  Often it is mixed with fear or confusion.  Sometimes just sadness or it appears depending on how much pain I might feel on a particular day.  Has it taken over my life?  Hardly.  Is my anger merely proof that I have a less than cheery outlook on life?   Um, no.  It is a sign that I am dealing with a less than ideal prognosis in a healthy way?  Yes.  I would argue definitively, yes.

“But in the seamless world of breast-cancer culture, where one website links to another,” writes Ehrenreich.  “From personal narratives and grassroots endeavors to the glitzy level of corporate sponsors and celebrity spokespeople, cheerfulness is more or less mandatory, dissent a kind of treason.”  A kind of treason?  Yes.  I would also argue that it is fear.

When you lash out at complete strangers with a level of energy one usually reserves for the most heinous of infractions, the very anger you rage against is the fear you have of your own.  The  conclusions you jump to belong to no one but yourself and often have nothing to do with the intent or substance of the comment to which you rage against.

The discussion groups to which I belong are safe zones.  When people rage and express their anger, always the responses are kind and nurturing.  I’ve never once seen anyone lecture or judge someone who expressed any opinion or fear.  In my blog I lash out, curse, explode, laugh, and wonder–but it’s my forum.  I express my opinions, call green blue, and tell cancer to fuck off.  People are free to read, or not.  And if someone writes to me telling me to fuck off (which they haven’t) there’s a link on WordPress you click called “Delete Permanently” that works really well for that kind of puerile nonsense.

When someone has cancer–regardless of the stage, of when they had it, if they still have it, or if they live in fear of getting it–we are obligated to feel empathy.  We–the people with breast cancer–are to reach out and help them, not to step across the line and scold them.  Not to lecture them on how to live their lives or focus their outlooks.  That is up to them.  Helping them to get wherever it is they want to go?  That is our job.

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20 Responses to Where’s the Empathy?

  1. keithw says:

    I remember that guy.

    Just because you have cancer, doesn’t mean you can’t still be an ass and a bigot who just happens to have cancer. Or be the best person in the world who just happens to have cancer.

  2. I think you’re brilliant! I completely agree that sometimes feeling angry is entirely reasonable, in fact, maybe even necessary as part of the processing. And I also agree that sometimes people throw the “nasties” around pretty easily on facebook or where ever. Luckily even more people (like you!) on blogs or where ever, are incredibly caring, supportive and wonderful. Also, generally I tell myself if someone is working that hard to convince me to be positive, they either have too much time on their hands or are actually trying to convince themselves, because if truth be told, they aren’t actually feeling as positive as they proclaim to be. I always come back to the fact that every person is entitled to live and tell her own cancer truths. It’s really that simple for me. Thank you for the wonderful forum of your blog and for telling your truths. Sorry to ramble.

  3. Thank you dear, for sharing this! Timely for me indeed!

  4. Juneaubugg (aka Jennifer) says:

    Sing it Sister!

    Deborah: that’s it, it’s an unsustainable emotion and needs to be followed by action; of whatever kind. That of course doesn’t mean that it is a wrong emotion. (Are there ANY wrong emotions along this journey? HELL NO!)

  5. Scorchy…

    All I’m sayin’ …. your sensitive side is showing again… Still enough snark but it’s definitely showing….

    As for the rest… I don’t think ANYONE should be preaching to another. As a member of the human race, I feel obligated to honor everyone’s feelings and validate them, too. Whether I agree or disagree is not the point.

    Some people, unfortunately, are not listening when others speak. They are so intent upon forcing their belief system on others, they are too busy mentally preparing their “comeback” while the other is speaking when they should be focused on HEARING the other person.

    That’s a kinda sucky way to be… very “know it all-ish” and it pisses me OFF. And, on some level, all societal ills can be broken down to this very simple point. The most important part of effective communication is listening. It is in listening that we learn things and perhaps shift our own views and in listening, we learn the ways we must speak so that others may HEAR what we are trying to say.

    OK.. too deep for a Monday, before a holiday, with an undecorated tree and no gifts… And two impending visits to MSK within the next ten days where I will be on the other side of the operating room. Mom first, sister shortly thereafter…..

    Bah Friggen Humbug…..

    But I love YOU….


    • Scorchy says:

      Balls! I think these fucking narcotics are making me . . . nice.

      You nailed it: listening. Listening, reassurance, support. A whole world away from insults, admonitions, and lectures about “proper” thoughts.

      Thoughts are with you through the MSK visits. Good thoughts.

  6. ldsword says:

    Add me to the ‘I agree’ pile – with one small qualification, mentioned below.

    I posted about the 3 reactions from friends and family I could do without. One was just what you wrote. Here’s the snippet from my post:

    “Then there were three unhelpful reactions. First among these was to negate my feelings. A bland look became my useful cover as yet another well-meaning person told me the importance of not feeling the way I was feeling at the time, or to feel more of, or different than, or some attitude that was going to save me because they were saved that way, or heard about someone who was, or read it somewhere. My standard reaction to their question of how I was doing was, ‘fine thanks,’ and I changed the subject.

    So, here’s the thing to know: how I felt at the time was how I felt at the time. It wasn’t wrong, or bad, or the thing that was going to affect my life span. It was just a feeling at the time that was part of the process I was experiencing at the exact moment you asked. It would change soon – guaranteed – depending on where I was in the chemo cycle and chemo-induced acute pain syndrome and the mood alterations from the drugs, their side effects and the latest news from the lab. Hang on tight friends, treatment’s a wild emotional ride.”

    I came to call it the twin tyrannies of positive thinking and good attitude.

    Then the qualification to my agreement. Feeling angry for a long time can be unsustainable if it doesn’t include some action to make me feel empowered, adaptable and/or resilient. So, I also understand the responses suggesting the angry person get help. They may be as correct as the angry person is. Maybe the problem is, exactly as you write, the lack of empathy we have for disagreeing positions, which is a systemic, societal issue in the 21st century.

    Thanks for your post. Sorry this comment is so long – you wrote about something I feel deeply.

    • Scorchy says:

      Deborah, I agree. Anger, if it is not controlled and dealt with in a responsible way, can be deleterious to your mental and physical health. No doubt about it! But the original post that this man wrote merely asked for a discussion of cancer’s dark side in addition to messages of hope and positive thinking. It was a wholly responsible and rational request. But instead of responding to that request, people posted replies that had nothing to do with that original post. One question led to insults, admonitions, and lectures. There is a distinct difference between wanting to share your anger and receive acknowledgement and support in return, and raging to the point of it affecting your health not to mention the well being of those around you. And this is what I think Barbara Ehrenreich was getting at in her now famous essay. Anger is okay to share, to explore, to feel–and it will change over days, hours, months, and years. But to shut down discussion of anger and replace that discussion with lectures and admonitions is insensitive and short sighted and, I think, has an equally negative effect on one’s health and well being.

  7. dglassme says:

    Scorchy, thanks for sharing this. Spot on! As always your writing is truthful and I often feel you are drudging around in my head finding the things you write, I just could never articulate them as fabulous as you do.

    • Scorchy says:

      Thanks Diane. At the risk of sounding obnoxious, I am beginning to become a little more accepting of this particular praise. Not from a position of distinction, but as a kind of privilege to be able to bring words to what so many can’t express. Great, now I’ve got a responsibility. Dammit!

      • dglassme says:

        First of all, you need some responsibility because that’s what working women are accustom to. Secondly, it is not only about the text you load into the virtual world it’s about your exceptional balance and level headedness without minimizing it’s true impact, expressing yourself whole heartedly but, keeping it in perspective, you do this very eloquently.

  8. Good for you!!! I enjoy your blog (being a BC survivor myself) and I am proud to stand next to you ~ when you need backup, I’ll hold your hand! Anger is just a part of the cancer issue ~ and it’s healthy to get it out ~ otherwise it eats you up inside. Keep blogging and inspiring us! I love your tell it like you’re feeling it attitude! xo

  9. Well said!! It is a hard enough ride, no matter what stage, so the least we can do is respect each other. It doesn’t mean we have to agree, but we are all entitled to feel the way we feel. Also, being angry one particularly Tuesday does not make an angry person necessarily. It might be just how we feel and what we are going through at that time.

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