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Overcoming empathy paralysis
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Overcoming empathy paralysis
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Overcoming empathy paralysis
Pass it on
Pass it on
18 July 2017

Overcoming empathy paralysis

You don’t need to have all the answers; you just need to start.

Written by Jini Maxwell

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

The way I feel in crowds is, I imagine, the way a freshwater fish would feel in brackish waters. At best it registers as wrong, low and continuous as a bass note. At worst, I can’t breathe. I skirted around the campaigns for refugee rights for years for this reason; I can’t go to rallies.

I feel the right feelings: guilt and shame, anger and empathy. But feelings are personal, and empathy with no recourse is a powerful paralytic. And if I can’t go to the rally, cure cancer, #bringthemhere or suture the ozone layer shut, these vast social problems feel insurmountable, and the slew of feelings attached to them, downright destabilising.

So instead I’m a slacktivist, a clicktivist. At best I might sign a petition or take clothes to the op shop; at worst, I scroll past a breakfast recipe and an article about distant war, then a friend’s engagement and photos of bleached coral and I try and I try not to think about it.

At the beginning of this year, I found out about the movement to bring Eaten Fish, a cartoonist detained on Manus Island, to the Australian mainland for specialist medical treatment. Despite four years’ incarceration without appropriate care, he has not been well enough to have his application for refugee status processed. His case is not unique; it’s a drop in the ocean that divides the offshore processing centres from the mainland. That’s just how it is.

But it felt personal. At the time, I was 25, just like him, and a cartoonist too. So I connected. It followed the course of any 21st century friendship; I followed him on Instagram, he added me on Facebook. I talked to my friends about him, his problems, how to help. Instead of labouring, as I usually would, over what constitutes the “right kind of activism,” I applied the tools for compassion I would apply to any friend in pain.

Turns out, transforming your care into action is a lot easier if you’re doing it in a language you already know. So I made zines. I talked to friends, then artists, writers, editors, refugees, activists, journalists. I asked a lot of questions. The care package I started making turned into a series of zines consisting of hundreds of submissions from people of all ages, from all over the world.

Suddenly it occurred to me that this is also activism.

I am thinking of Abdul Aziz Muhammad’s quote to ABC News, after the government agreed to pay $70 million in compensation to asylum seekers detained on Manus Island: “One thing today I found is there are some people down there in Australia who care about us.” The money isn’t enough. No amount of money could be enough to make adequate reparations. People are still held in offshore detention. But the hard, charitable work done by the lawyers on the class action suit wasn’t in vain if it could engender that feeling in someone.

We think of activism as emotional labour, but I’ve come to realise that avoidance is a kind of work too; it may be less apparent, but it takes constant emotional maintenance to section off the overwhelming parts of our lives.

A flood of information can be as emotionally draining as any action, but it accomplishes a lot less. If there is an issue you care about, seriously think about how you engage with it— constant exposure isn’t the same as education, or as activism. You can’t change your difficult feelings about a cause, but you can limit the extent to which they control you. That doesn’t mean you have to suffer, just that reading sad tweets isn’t saving the world. How much of your engagement is active and how much is inert? If it’s tiring you out, do something else.

If you feel that you are not the answer, or you do not have the answer, ask someone who might. Truth is, I don’t know how to do activism well, and I don’t know how not to burn out—maybe I have part of the answer, though, and there are so many people who have more interesting parts of the answer than me.

Send an email. Do a shout-out on Twitter or Tumblr. People already doing the work are out there. You don’t have to do all of it, but the work is being done, and in whatever way you can manage—and trust me, it will be meaningful—you are doing something. We’re not individuals, aimlessly, hopelessly feeling into a void. We’re a community. That fact may not always be obvious, but it is always true. We can and should share knowledge.

In the meantime, there are steps you can take to lessen your inert exposure to hard things, and to make more space for practical outlets for empathy.

Social media is a big one; choose a room in your house where you never take your phone. Do something small and nice for someone you care about, something that feels easy and fun. Water your plants. Find ways of being compassionate in gentle, everyday ways that aren’t hard and don’t hurt.

If you feel overwhelmed, think small. Put $5 towards paying for phone credit for asylum seekers detained on Manus Island and Nauru or plant flowers that attract bees or do meatless Mondays, or write to your local MP about the current Centrelink crisis. These are accessible steps that can show you the way to greater social engagement. They can also remain as they are, small, important gestures in a more compassionate life. It’s okay.

Compassion, unlike empathy, is not something that you “feel.” In the words of Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa, “you are it.” Being caring is the work you do. More than that, it’s the outlet for the same empathy that can be so disempowering otherwise. The trick is just to start. You don’t need to have all the answers; you just need to start.

Eaten Fish has still not received the medical treatment he needs. We haven’t won yet. But we sent him drawings and notes from hundreds of people, telling him they see him, they support him, they care. We raised a few thousand dollars for various refugee charities. And at the end of the day, it’s not about me winning. Eaten Fish’s plight may be a drop in the ocean, but oceans are made of drops.

If you’re reading this article, it’s because you care, and you already have some ways of expressing that. Other people have more, and they’ll talk to you about it. Practise applying them in new spaces, and give yourself permission to figure it out at your own pace and on your own terms.

It doesn’t take an exceptional person to turn love into work. I still can’t go to rallies. The first Google search is the hardest—after that, you just click links.

Jini Maxwell

Jini Maxwell is a writer, comics artist and feelings enthusiast based in Melbourne.

Feature image by Jini Maxwell

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