Sunday, July 13, 2008

Getting it

I’m always frustrated when I’m in a situation where someone doesn’t “get it.” On a political level, we saw a prime example this week when John McCain’s chief economic advisor, Phil Gramm, informed us that, in this time of financial hardship for many folks, we are simply in a “mental recession” and that we have become a “nation of whiners.” While McCain was quick to distance himself from Gramm’s remarks, the fact remains that McCain himself has been slow to acknowledge, or even recognize, the seriousness of the current economic situation. Time after time, he has pronounced that the “fundamentals of the economy are strong,” seeming to believe that if he says it enough, it will be so. Are we surprised? Only 4 short months ago, our president was dumbfounded when a reported asked him about the prospect of $4 a gallon gas, responding, “Four dollars a gallon? That’s interesting. I hadn’t heard that.” These rich politicians who have very limited contact with us regular folks can’t imagine how we live. When Cindi McCain charges $750,000 in one month on her American Express cards, when she has a closet full of $3000 designer suits, when the McCains own eight expensive residences, I can see why it might be difficult to empathize with someone who lives from paycheck to paycheck, who can’t afford the health care they need, who has lost their home to foreclosure. It’s not just a failure of empathy. It’s a failure of what I like to call “empathic imagination.” These people, living in an insulated world with others like themselves, find it almost impossible to imagine what life is like for those who live in a much different world.

But this failure of empathic imagination isn’t only a fact of political life. I see it in my everyday life as well and I find it equally frustrating there. One recent experience at work immediately comes to mind because I was so upset about it at the time. Last month I had my annual performance review and received low scores on “Productivity” and “Absenteeism.” The supervisor assured me that the numbers were only based on the time period from October on, after my caseload picked up. Great. In that period of time, I have missed work for minor surgery on my feet, an emergency stress test, two MRIs, my sons’ two visits to the ER, my mother’s two trips to the ER by ambulance, Marcus’ two surgeries and follow-up care, my mother’s regularly scheduled doctor’s visits. I also had to take Gabriel to MHMR every two weeks, but usually managed to drop him off and see a patient or two while he waited. I reminded her that my absences were due to these circumstances and she sort of brushed my protest aside. (Later I checked with the head of HR and found out that I could have been using intermittent Family and Medical Leave Act time for these absences and they wouldn’t have counted against me…it would have been nice if someone had told me that!) Anyway, the supervisor was obviously trying not to seem uncaring and asked a bit about my mother, but what I find at work is that supervisors ask about things like that, but they don’t really want to listen to the answers. I explained that my mother is 89 and legally blind. A few minutes later the supervisor asks me, “Does she still drive?” Say what? Hello? I just said she was blind, plus if she could drive, WHY would I be taking her to her appointments? I also mentioned that one evening recently I tried to call my mother and didn’t get an answer over the course of an hour. My mother almost never leaves her apartment after supper, so I was in a panic. The supervisor laughed and said something like, “I guess you were wondering where she went off to!” I couldn’t believe she didn’t get it, that I was panicked because my first thought was that my mother was lying helpless on the floor after a stroke or heart attack. Naturally that would be my first thought, given her age and the fact that I lost my dad not so long ago. I see this as a failure of empathic imagination, something that I seem to encounter a lot as I am surrounded at work by 20- and 30-somethings, many of whom have responsibility for no one but themselves and have unlimited youthful energy and good health. They literally cannot imagine how life is for me. Maybe 20 or 30 years from now, they’ll understand how things change when you have to manage work while dealing with personal health problems, caring for elderly parents, etc.

Most people, I think, would agree that empathy is an important facet of emotional intelligence, but I would say that the first step of developing empathy is to develop the ability to imagine what another person might be experiencing. One has to be able, mentally, to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.


Thom said...

Normally, I would take a position of support and compassion, but my recent experiences have given me a far more cynical view. Getting it, or being clueless, is not exclusive to any demographic or age group. Working in a place that deals with people from all walks of life who are touched by cancer, one would hope that there would be a great deal of compassion and empathy. Maybe so for the members, but not necessarily for staff... I had a case this week of a pregnant employee who was in tears because her manager (one of my peers) threatened to deny the maternity leave because it interfered with her own time off. Not only is that a lack of empathy and clueless on a grand scale, it is illegal. The clueless manager is in her 60’s.

This is just one of many examples of the truly clueless I work with (staff and board members) who are out of touch with those struggling to get by. It is disappointing and frightening. The fact that this behavior is evident in our supposed political representatives in not surprising, but it is equally frightening…

Galen said...

Well, my goodness, Thom, I guess that young staffer should just reschedule her due date to a more convenient time that doesn't interfere with the manager's vacation! I see this, too, at a business that has a lot of compassion for our patients, there doesn't seem to be much for the staff.

I might point out that a day or two after my performance review, the supervisor took a week and a half of vacation time. That's what adds insult to injury for me...I've never taken a week off except for my dad's death or Marcus' surgery. Of course, at our company, what's the point of taking a vacation? They expect you to work all the visits in that month anyway, so it's not really worth it.

Pirate Aggro said...

I think the American culture of "Rugged Individualism" has made us apt to be less empathetic. Our culture tells us that nothing is more important than our individual rights and needs.

Our current administration is a perfect example of this. Our president is a millionaire who has never known a lean day in his life. I don’t even think he has a concept of what it means to actually work for a living.

While a little better, his father was the same way. I remember him being amazed by the "space age" technology of scanners on a visit to a grocery store, even though the technology had been present for more than 10 years. He had not been in a grocery store in that long.

McCain has shown the same lack of empathy. Saying that we will be in Iraq for the next 100 years; this despite the human and financial cost the war is having. He has soft peddled the meaning of the current recession until just recently when banks have started to fail and rich people are being affected.