If you saw somebody carrying a heavy load, would you take your knapsack and put it on his or her back? Of course not. Should a healthy person walking up hill ask for a ride from someone in a hand-cranked wheelchair? Of course not. In situations that concrete, it’s pretty easy to assess who can handle more burden and who could stand to be relieved of some. So why do we so often do this with our words and our actions? Why do we take people already burdened by trauma or oppression and unload our own comparatively manageable burdens upon them? The “Love Wins” mantra to which I and so many others have clung for the last three years is predicated on compassion, and we mustn’t lose sight of that amidst philosophical arguments that ring hollow without it.
December 14 has become a day for me to reflect on the capacity of humans to ease or exacerbate burdens. It’s my birthday and was a day of celebration and gratitude until 3 years ago when in an instant the still-inconceivable murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School rendered it a day of intense mourning. As with all who lost loved ones there, my capacity to view human tragedy as an abstraction vanished, replaced by a new understanding of burdens, those foisted upon both Ana’s family and on ours.
We found ourselves seeing the hierarchies of burden from both directions. We dutifully promised to do what we could to help our bereaved friends and found ourselves greatly depending on others further removed from the tragedy to hold us up. All along the way I observed the ways in which good intentions needed to be backed up by good sense. While my desire to help never waned, that didn’t exempt me from messing up and pouring salt on a wound because I didn’t choose my words or actions with sufficient care or wisdom. I suppose I could have played the “hey, be happy I’m helping” card, but that would have been antithetical to my actual intentions, both towards them and as a morally evolving being. Through the experience I have seen things that have taught me both what to do and what not to do for “how can I help” to be a substantive question and not a hollow way to assuage one’s own guilt or helplessness.
The experience has also stoked my skepticism toward those who judge other people’s reactions to adversity they themselves have not experienced. Those of you outside of academia may have missed this, but the current wave of campus protests surrounding inequality (particularly racial inequality) has spurred a counter-movement of critics. In particular, many are portraying the climate on campuses as that of coddled and over-reactive young people. Under the guise of political correctness and accusations of “microaggressions,” so the criticism goes, they are demanding insulation from the realities of life and thereby setting themselves up for adulthoods as spineless blobs lacking any capacity to handle life’s subsequent challenges.
The severity of the issues being minimized by these critics (literally all of the authors of these pieces I have encountered are white males who didn’t talk to any actual college students) is a vitally important topic in itself, but that is a separate conversation (and one happening all over the country, whether or not folks choose to wake up to it). But what about the underlying notion that we are weakening society’s fabric by expecting sensitivity?
Even if we accept the twin goals of protecting free speech and fostering resiliency (and who wouldn’t?), there is a certain absurdity to an argument that fundamentally revolves around defending the right to offend people. If you’re an ACLU lawyer, relax, I’m not challenging that right. I am, however, saying that exercising that right indiscriminately likely makes someone an a**hole, flouting the nebulousness of the distinction between engaging in “tough love” in telling people truths they need to hear (which indeed may offend some) and simply being disrespectful. Is there really a rational argument to be made that the best way for people tasked with nurturing young people to prepare them for the world’s injustices is to directly perpetuate them? Or is that just a way to justify selfish or lazy resistance to change?
My own incredulity over this line of thought is compounded when the people having to “suck it up” are those already carrying extra burdens. If a student of color in a historically white institution is spoken to dismissively, then he should accept that because it will be even worse in the world outside? If (to cite a recent real-life example from a friend) a sexual trauma survivor doesn’t like rape jokes, then she should just avoid comedians and let the rest of us enjoy unfettered humor? Well, these cases could be made, but this viewpoint at minimum means forfeiting claims of inclusion. My own physical disability has put me in this position repeatedly, and for most of my life my go-to response until recently was to suck it up and take that extra load (on top of the existing loads of chronic pain, joint instability and so on) because having to fight to get my needs met was more burdensome than simply meeting them myself. Of course I also meticulously catalogued the people and institutions that were or weren’t capable of being allies. And don’t even get me started on being a foster/adoptive parent who yearns to protect his kids from further marginalization.
Indeed, when I became a parent, I became far more vividly aware of the subtleties of constructive nurturing and the struggle that people (even very intelligent people) have to make some important distinctions. Much is made today of the term “helicopter parenting” and it is indeed important not to hover over our kids and stifle their capacity to figure things out. However, there is a fundamental difference between stepping back to let our kids experience the natural consequences of their actions and failing to be attentive and sensitive. Because my kids were teens when they arrived in our family, I was aware that they carried burdens that I could not erase but had a sacred duty to help with. While my track record is far from perfect, I have always tried to be attentive to that. And I have been criticized for that, a criticism that largely centers on the inability to make the above-mentioned distinction. First of all, it is my duty to help ease their burdens (even if through something as imperceptible to the outside world as treading carefully around a sensitive subject) to free them to do the important work that only they can do. Second, they need to be loved powerfully and they need to be seen vividly. Expecting resilience and savvy from someone who is denied that core nourishment is like expecting someone who has been denied breakfast to run a half marathon – it’s abstractly possible, but with unnecessary strain. If the effort it takes to provide that leaves me depleted for some reason, it is my job to seek out others to nourish me, not to put that responsibility back on those who I am trying to liberate from suffering. You want to see my blood boil? Opine that my kids should be grateful for what they have and that I’m paying too much attention to the minutiae of their ups and downs. I think the body of empirical evidence that has been built over the last 11 years suggests otherwise.
Note that we’re not even talking about major sacrifices on the part of those having to make these shifts, unless being a little more disciplined and trying to evolve into a kind, helpful person is a major sacrifice. We are talking about attention to respect and kindness. We are talking about learning to engage in modes of communication that enfranchise those who are already burdened so they might succeed and contribute. We are talking about word choices and tone of voice and remembering certain details. This is neither rocket science nor heavy lifting. Recently, while exercising, I saw some mid-1980s clips of a very tame comedian of whom I was fond when I was a kid. I was really taken aback that over the course of an hour he made jokes about gay people, disabled people, acquaintance rape and a number of other things that would rankle even moderate sensibilities today. Folks, those ain’t the “good ol’ days.”
For candor’s sake, I’m going to close with an extremely embarrassing anecdote. In my mid-20s I still retained much of the scatological humor I had inherited from my now-deceased father. I knew better than to deploy butt and poop jokes, say, in a job interview or on the mic at a gig, but with friends it was fair game. On one occasion, while taking a walk with a friend, I made a reference (borrowed from Frank Zappa) to “ramming it up the poop chute,” to which the friend cringed and explained that, as a person in an ongoing process of healing from profound sexual abuse, this was not only unfunny but actually upsetting.
In a split second I had two thoughts, the first of which is not a source of pride but has been a source of insight ever since. I first thought “okay . . . but it WAS funny” and stewed on that for what seemed like an excessively long time (though in reality it was probably 5 seconds) before landing on “I care about this person and thus my perception of humor is utterly irrelevant here if I want my behavior to reflect that caring.” I apologized without qualification. I recognized that even if it had been the funniest joke in the world, this friend already had an unfairly heavy load to carry. I stopped using this sort of humor around this friend and pretty soon retired it altogether with no noticeable impact to my overall capacity for wit.
Was it difficult? Well, it was not zero-effort and it required the humility and, I like to think, integrity to recognize that my good intentions didn’t shield me from messing up. And I had to live with that and decide to change. But in the end I didn’t even do it for my friend – I did it for myself, because I don’t want to accept being that kind of person, even if the law may protect my right to do so. I tell this story to reinforce that few of us are immune to having thoughts we really shouldn’t express if we don’t want to hurt people – the crossroads comes in deciding what do we do in those moments. In the inevitable moments when you find yourself in that position and experiencing the natural resistance to change and accountability, I urge you to ask yourself the question “whose burden should this be?”