A Facebook friend posted the following article yesterday, These Stereotypes Are A Far Greater Threat To Veterans Than Any Fireworks, regarding the use of fireworks as a celebratory practice and the effect those fireworks could actually have on our veterans, the very people we often attempt to celebrate on national holidays like the 4th of July. The interesting thing is, I didn’t give it a very thorough read and walked away believing it said one thing when in fact it said the very opposite. This read comes after having finished a book, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, a recent finalist for the National Book Award, and having been dumbfounded by its intense portrayal of our country’s cluelessness when it comes to understanding our veterans.
You know that concept of a paradigm shift? Of a sudden earthquake-size refocusing of your perspective which throws you off keel and then back onto a steady, more knowledgeable and sympathetic footing? I’m using ‘sympathetic,’ not ’empathetic,’ here because it’s the precise difference between those two words and perhaps the over use of both which seem to be the issue in both the book above and in the article. And perhaps in the whole realm of recovery.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about war. I went directly from “Billy Lynn” to the recent winner of the Booker Man Prize, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan, at times an utterly disturbing journey into a Japanese POW camp with its accompany horrors, horrors we only got a small taste of in the movie version of Unbroken. With a generation of veterans who fought in WWII getting smaller and smaller, the visualizations (the root of empathy and sympathy) we will make out of the actual events of World War II will become more and more stylized, Hollywood-ized, and we, as an audience will become further and further disconnected to the reality of the actual experience. Through the news media coverage of live warfare and because of Hollywood movies and TV shows, many of us think we understand war. We think we know what it was like or is like, and then presume to empathize with our fellow citizens who have actually fought in or are fighting in wars. The problems is: it’s a BIG PRESUMPTION. We know nothing. Nothing. So what we think is empathy, often displayed in flag-waving, firework-shooting, support, is often just a masquerade that makes us feel good because we imagine what it must be like or have been like, to be in a war.
What we’re feeling, unless we’ve actually been there, is sympathy. You likely know the difference between empathy and sympathy. Here’s a great chart differentiation and description of the difference below:
Empathy is the ability to experience the feelings of another person. It goes beyond sympathy, which is caring and understanding for the suffering of others. Both words are used similarly and often interchangeably (incorrectly so) but differ subtly in their emotional meaning.
Ok, so what does reading about war, criticizing non-veteran’s desire to honor veterans, noting the difference between empathy and sympathy have to do with reading and recovery? One of the biggest reasons I often find more recovery growth coming out of reading than I do out of meetings is because often, as is true with our obsession to “comment”on EVERYTHING we read from Facebook posts to blog posts to news articles, and to collect ‘comments’ and ‘likes’ as a gauge of our worth, is that as soon as we comment, often we stop thinking. We draw a line in the sand. We agree or disagree. We ‘relate’ or sympathize. In the rooms we listen, hug people after they share, offer nuggets of program wisdom in an attempt to reassure the sharer or storyteller he or she is not alone, perhaps hand a suggestion or two over, welcome the newcomer, say, “we’re all just bozos on the bus,” “I’ve been there,” “I know what you’re feeling,” and on and on. In the rooms, a “conspiracy of experience” exists which is, if one is looking to feel better through a shared experience, exactly what you’ll get.
There is nothing wrong with any of that except the notion that a person’s personal experience, her personal journey, her life is a unique and utterly un-sharable experience that cannot create empathy in another person unless the other person truly has experienced exactly the same life. It might create sympathy, and it is in that sympathy we wish to swim. Sharing in a public realm with an expectation of timely reaction from others provide something: a reaction. We are a society of reactors. We react. We don’t process or allow ourselves time to process and instead jump into the sympathy pool hoping to splash around with the others swimming in that same pool.
Reading on the other hand is an utterly solitary moment of individuation, it is the basis for the creation of empathy for yourself. Yes, we react to a book, and then we live with that reaction. We might write review or share a reading experience with another, but we are not in this attempt to empathize with the actual writer. We don’t attempt to disprove the writer’s experience by tracking down the writer through their publishing house (well, maybe you do), by logging onto a blog and blasting them for their perspective (well, maybe you do), or publicly reacting to a passage read from a book like we do in the rooms (planning the whole time before your share what you are going to share.)
Being forced to sit with ones reaction is the process of evolution. It’s a process of empathizing with yourself as you connect to who you are through the words of others. It’s a process of rediscovery. Finding out who you are without allowing your automatic gut reaction to get the best of you, without severing the thought process with your emotional reaction, without drawing that line in the sand, without coating someone else’s experience with program platitudes, without arguing a point in a comment section because you’re uncomfortable with how an experience made you feel, is allowing growth and healing to occur at exponential levels. It’s creating empathy for your own life experience.
I am having a hard time finishing “The Narrow Road….” because I am reading thoughts that are my own. I’m in shock over what the words are helping me rediscover about myself. About who I am. I’m looking in a mirror I never expected to find in a book about World War II. And I sure as hell have not been to war. I am not empathizing or even sympathizing with the POW experience–I am changing as I read because the words are forcing me to think, and think, and think some more about who I am. About the choices I have made, the lies I have told, the relationships I have had. I can’t stop the process by writing a comment, or writing this blog, or comforting the nearest veteran because my reaction will not receive it’s own reaction. It’s why there is no comment section on this website. I cannot react and subsequently in that process of reacting, comfort myself into a false sense of security and identity via other people’s reactions to my reactions. My reaction just is. I am creating identity in this process. By not reacting externally with the expectation of a response, I am rediscovering myself internally.
I offer this not to further disparage programs or meetings, but to simply say that for me they cannot be the end all, be all of recovery. They are beautiful, but they are, a conspiracy of experience. The conspiracy is in sharing a language handed down by others; words have meaning, intention, and can help or harm. Each of us carry our lives into every word that exists in order to help us create identity. Words like “rigorous honesty” and “character defect” are loaded with personal baggage and can do more harm than good if the language in this conspiracy of experience is touted as “The Word,” repeated as “The Word,” and offered as “The Word.”
Personally speaking, I must use my own language of experience to process my life, and in that process I will lead to discovery, to rediscovery. It’s an individual process, just like the act of reading a book, that cannot be done solely relying on the help of others. If I am not reading, I am not evolving. If I am not reading, I am not recovering. If I am not reading, I am not rediscovering. Pow! Fireworks.