Can’t imagine what I’m going through? Try harder, suggests Ali Schofield

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I nearly didn’t write this. I’m only on the second sentence, so you never know, I might not yet. A laissez-faire attitude to coming up with something to say on deadline while also never missing a deadline means I have just been discharged from hospital for complications around the cancer in
my lungs and find I have to write down a coherent opinion. Strap in – this might be fun.

While I was on the ward a family came to visit their grandma. “God, I’m sick of feeling so poorly,” he said. One of the guys who had come to visit this woman, that is. Sitting there, loudly honking snot back up his big, stupid nose, complaining of feeling poorly to a woman who had cancer “everywhere”. I know this, by the way, because an overly chatty woman in the next bed had been bending her ear earlier and asked “Mine’s spread to my stomach – is yours the same?” and the woman had responded “It’s everywhere”, which only served as encouragement to her neighbour for further fun cancer chat.

You seem to get this. I’ve only been to one support meeting where people with secondary cancer were encouraged to talk to each other because it descended into cancer Top Trumps. “I’ll see your spread to the bone and lungs and raise you a brain, liver and arse cheek,” or whatever.

Anyway, he might have tried for some empathy. We need more of it. I wonder if we’re being actively encouraged out of it.

Around all the reporting of sexual harassment and rape recently, well-meaning people have suggested imagining the victim as your daughter, wife, sister (or in some cases presumably son, husband, brother, though I can’t say I have seen this). Why aren’t we imagining being the victim ourselves?

Whatever our sex, we’re all humans. We can imagine how it would feel for something like that to happen. It better connects us if we can have empathy by imagining living other people’s lives. There’s another bit of rhetoric that we so easily fall into: “I can’t begin to imagine what you’re going through.” It’s a go-to for rough times and, granted, probably not said very much by the guy who visited hospital, but it’s alienating and just not true. You can imagine and it might make the world a more compassionate place if you did, too.

But it continues. Parents are told via charity appeals that “children just like yours” are enduring famine in other countries. An attack is reported as somehow more repellent and, yes, unimaginable, when the perpetrator has a daughter of roughly the same age as the victim. It means we all feel disconnected from one another, casting around for a loved one to equate with someone who’s struggling. What if we just don’t know anyone the same age and sex as the refugee on our screens? What then?

The next day, the snivelling visitor returned to pick up the woman. She made him wait half an hour while he glanced distractedly at the clock and muttered about parking charges so that she could eat the tea she’d ordered. I suppose sometimes a lack of empathy can be rich reward.

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