In my day job at a daycare, I find that the time moves quickly because I’m constantly dealing with one crisis or another. This kid scraped her knee, that kid lost a shoe, this one just gave himself a black eye running into a pole. My attention is pulled in a million different directions all at once, every hour I’m there. I’ve found myself very skilled at prioritizing tasks: talk to the crying child first, deal with the bugs second, give the kid on the swing a push third.
I’ve also learned very quickly to encourage children to understand their own feelings and that I can provide comfort, but I can’t do much else. It’s inevitable that when I’m in the midst of dealing with one crisis, another kid will come up seeking attention for his invented one. “I want a turn on the dump truck!” “I’m mad at my friend!” "I need a push on the swing!" What this translates to is the five year old begging me to prioritize their feelings over and above everyone else – even their friend with blood running down his leg.
I’ve had to figure out how to let these children know that they are not the center of the universe while also validating their feelings about the world. They’re kids. They don’t understand the concepts of pulling attention away from a discussion or that sometimes adults have to prioritize what we deal with. I’ve taken to asking the kids, “I’m sorry you feel that way. What do you want me to do about it? What do you think is a good choice for you here?”
What that translates to in my adult brain is “Why are you forcing me to deal with your feelings?” What it says to the kids is, “You’re capable of coming up with a solution for this on your own. Go figure it out.” Sometimes, all the kid needs is the encouragement to go talk to their friend about how they feel, or the courage to know that their feelings are valid experiences. I’m trying, in other words, to simultaneously validate their feelings while also letting them know that the only person who can fix how they feel about something is … them.
It’s a lesson I wish more people would learn.
The other day, I was discussing with some friends about life as a woman – the men hitting on us, the creepers keeping us from going about our day, the every day harassment we face. And a well-meaning but misguided man popped in to tell us that we were making him sad.
I bit my tongue, wanting to get acerbic but knowing it wouldn’t go anywhere. Instead, one of the friends and I changed our conversation to a private place, with the added annoyance that we had to change our venue for discussing men to avoid men.
I’m sure this person thought he was adding to the conversation. He was feeling things, you see, and he wanted us to know he was listening. But what he did was plop how he felt about our lives into our laps and try to make us deal with it. He was the crying kid who comes up wanting me to comfort him about his feelings before dealing with them himself.
And I wouldn’t be so annoyed except that this happens again and again. Any time I open my mouth to talk about living life as the woman I am – the ways in which I have to protect myself, the ways in which my daily life changes, the string of automatic actions that develop – there’s a cisgender hetero man there waiting to tell me how he feels about it.
In a way, it’s something I’ve come to expect. It’s a move many men who are new to feminism make – they mistake feelingsdumps for allyship, thinking that if we just know that they feel bad for our lives, it’ll be their feminist points for the day. And while empathy is good, telling us you feel bad about our lives isn’t actually empathetic. It’s sympathetic pity and it’s something I – and many other feminists – are tired of hearing.
Pity, rather than empathy, doesn’t actually add to a discussion of oppression. Instead, it recenters the discussion on the oppressor who now feels bad for oppressing. It’s a subtle, unconscious way of re-establishing dominance in spaces that exist for the oppressed. The man who feels the need to tell women that he feels sad is a man who cannot bear being quiet long enough to allow women to direct the discussion. Your feelings about our lives are useful in that they may motivate you to work within the oppressive class to change things. But your feelings about our lives are only useful if you don’t make them into our problem.
A couple of years ago, there was a popular article in the LA Times about how to deal with a friend or family member diagnosed with serious illness. The scenario imagined a series of concentric circles, moving out from the diagnosed person to the immediate family members to friends to acquaintances and so on. The proposed method for understanding and dealing with feelings is to dump out, not in – if you are on the outer rim of the circle, you don’t take up the time of the people on the inside by telling them how you feel about their friend or family member’s diagnoses. You spend time listening to their feelings instead. And then you go to someone who is outside of your circle to talk to about your feelings. And so on.
In this way, the person at the center of the circle is kept safe from feeling responsible for how everyone else feels. This allows them to simply focus on how they feel and work on improving their lot, with the support of the outer circles.
When my mom got really sick last year, this circle method was a useful way to keep myself sane. I was living with Mom through all but the last two weeks of her illness. I never once talked to her about my fear of her death, about how I felt outmatched by the disease that was slowly shutting down her organs, how shitty it felt to be losing my mom. Instead, I held her while she vomited, I told her I loved her every single day, and I talked about the things she wanted to talk about and watched the TV she wanted to watch.
While I definitely had and still have a lot of feelings about her situation, I didn’t burden her with the responsibility of dealing with or solving them. I had other family and friends for that task – friends disconnected from Mom, who knew how to provide me with the right support and not to tell me how sad my life was making them feel.
If they felt sad, I didn’t know. Pity wouldn’t have changed the situation anyway. What helped, instead, were the friends who provided food, who invited me out for coffee, who offered a listening ear, who chose to ask me about something other than how my mom was doing.
This, I believe with all my heart, is how activism should go for allies. It is not our place to make sure the oppressed know how we feel about them, unless they ask us to tell them. Interjecting our feelings into a discussion just pushes the discussion away from the oppression and onto who we are. It upsets the balance of the circle.
Male allies to the feminist cause are allowed to feel sad – they’re allowed to feel however they want to. But I’d prefer it if they kept it to themselves and simply did the work of calling out people further out in the circles.
Empathy and pity are not interchangeable feelings. Pity is a selfish feeling that demands an account from the pitied. Empathy is, instead, an action that says, “I understand. How can I help?”