The Word Rabbit

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This article was written on 23 Aug 2016, and is filled under Uncategorised.

A blog for a friend

You asked me a while ago about empathy, because you thought that a man you like may not display it enough. Since then, the thought has been sat at the back of my mind, and I realise that I’ve been thinking about it and then, when I was downstairs, prosaically sanding the floor, it came to the front of my mind and I realised that I was going to have to give it shape and texture on paper, which is what I’m doing now.

If someone’s arm falls off, you say ‘bloody hell, your arm’s fallen off’ and set about getting them to a hospital. The need for evidence doesn’t arise, because you saw their arm fall off. Equally, if a friend is in hospital because their arm has fallen off, you don’t need to see their arm actually fall off, because other people did and, well, they’re in hospital because their arm has fallen off. It’s like the Moon landings. We all know that they took place and the only ones who didn’t are some odd men in the United States and smell of pork, and only believe something if they’ve seen it themselves.

Feelings, however, are more difficult. It took me having a breakdown and crawling through the months afterwards, figuratively on my stomach and begging to die, to recognise that what I feel does have weight and is important. So when someone comes up to me and says ‘I feel down,’ I don’t need to see some kind of evidence that they’re down. I don’t need to see unwashed plates in the sink, or a living room strewn with crisp packets and half-eaten Pot Noodle to know that something is amiss. What they say is sufficient.

Just past the halfway point of this breakdown, where I was ambulatory and actually starting to talk to people, I was called for jury service. I replied to the summons and said that I was half mad with depression, but they were unmoved and I was called anyway. Before I started, I went home to see my parents. My mum asked me how I felt about my impending two weeks at Kingston Crown Court and, when I said ‘complex,’ told me how I should feel and how I should see it.

Then something happened, which should perhaps have happened much sooner. I said to my mum that, while I respected her opinion, those feelings were mine. They weren’t hers and they weren’t my dad’s. While they could certainly be talked about, I owned them and my reaction was my own. That was sufficient for me, and I reserved the right to view my jury service and to express that viewpoint in whatever way I saw fit.

And in this, there was both liberation and recognition. I was liberated from other people’s view of how I felt and had come to recognise that my feelings were sovereign. Some things are, of course, factual, like an arm falling off or the Moon landings. But where a situation is about no more than your own reactions or your own feelings, they cannot be gainsaid.

If the response to ‘I feel X, Y or Z’ is to argue or to ask for evidence, then the other person has missed the point by a country mile. Worse than that, they are trying to impose their own systems of thought onto you so that you are forced to experience life their way and understand their truths. I more than understand this because I was ‘it’ for a long period of time and, periodically, I am still ‘it’ again. When someone shares a subjective thought with me, I have to remind myself that this is their view and, while we can both discuss it, their view is what matters to them, mine to me.

The people in life most likely to talk over someone or to try and force people to see things the way that they think is empirically true but is, in fact, just their way of seeing things, are white men. And I’m both of these. At some point in my life, maybe because society tells me that What I Reckon is desperately and uniquely important, I’ve decided that my view wins and that other people should listen while I sound off about something that I may not know anything about, at all, and which generally involves overruling the other person.

This is, of course, nonsense. I know about my world and about the things that I know about. I don’t know and can only fleetingly hope to understand what it’s like to be say, a woman, a victim of violence, homeless, a refugee or so on. It behoves me, when those people speak, to either shut up entirely or ask only those questions which are germane to what they’ve already said. I don’t get, from my nice comfy seat of privilege, wholly unearned, to tell the victim or violence what she should have done or tell the refugee to stay put.

You don’t need to have had a breakdown to do this. I had a breakdown because, firstly, I am stupid, because, secondly, I am wilful, and because, thirdly, I didn’t listen to what my own body and my own mind were telling or, rather, screaming at, me. Anyone can reach this knowledge with humility, self-awareness and being able to swallow their pride and say ‘bollocks – I don’t know anything about this, so I’ll listen and try and educate myself while people with first hand experience of the thing we’re talking about express how it feels.’

I’m not better. At all. I still talk over people, still think that my view is the ‘right’ one, but now I do at least manage to tell myself to be quiet more often than I don’t and do tell myself that, if I listen, I may learn more about how it feels to be that person and to walk a mile in their shoes. You’re a unique and creative person, like all of us, gifted with a unique set of talents and abilities. The very least you deserve is someone who hears you out and supports you through the times when you struggle to make your voice heard. I hope you’ve found him.

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