Performative empathy and terminal distraction

What I am about to write may mark me, to some, as uncharitable and harsh in my judgments, but see if you’ve had a similar experience.  This might ring a bell and give you a different way of viewing a vexation from your own life.

When someone you know tells you they are sick, badly injured or facing a scary diagnosis, it is customary to say things like “please let me know how it turns out” and “let me know if there’s anything I can do.”  As kids we learn to say these kinds of things from the empathetic adults around us.   If we are involved in the health-challenged person’s life, able to do things for them, and have shown ourselves willing to exert ourselves to follow through, the phrases land as a show of sincere concern and friendship.   If we say these things in a show of concern and never actually follow up, it is performative empathy.  Don’t look at the intention and the history too closely and everybody feels a little better.

Sometimes the performance of empathy is unintentionally feckless.  It is not that they don’t want to help out, it’s just that they are terminally distracted.  They intend to do the compassionate thing, but, goddamn it, there is so much to do, it’s relentless, and, plus, the person they extended the invitation to didn’t seem too grateful, seemed to doubt them, so isn’t there an element of judgment there?   I said the right thing and they judged me as being insincere.  I was sincere, but their silence in response to my offer of help really hurt, made me feel like a bad person.  It was like they didn’t expect me to follow up, as if I said it just to make myself feel like a good person!

Some people always follow up on their offers of support.  Some people rarely, if ever, follow up.  It is better to speak less and do more, given the choice.   For some, speaking in a generous manner is the best they can do.  They are honestly overwhelmed by the million details of their day to day activities, trapped in the rushing cascade of their own highly programmed lives.  When they speak generously they don’t intend not to follow up, it’s just that they are so busy, all the time, that they will not always remember the sincere gasp of concern they emitted when you raised the spectre of a cancer diagnosis.  And it’s not as if you would be there for them.

Along it all rolls, until, for one or the other of us, it stops rolling and all consideration is in the past tense, for everybody else.

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