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Pain and empathy

This past week in the New York Times Magazine I came across this article, The Hazzards of Growing Up Painlessly, about a teenager who has a genetic condition that makes her unable to feel pain. Coincidentally on the same day I read this blog post by a Korean Adoptee, Joy Lieberthal. Joy writes, “It is so bittersweet to realize that without the pain, there can be little in the way of true joy and I struggle to make sense of the idea that oftentimes in adoption, this paradox exists time and time again.”

I’ve been thinking about this concept a lot in the past few years. I’ve talked about it in terms of something I’ve noticed frequently with adoptive parents who tend to over-compensate for the pain and trauma their child has experienced by attempting to eliminate pain in their children’s lives. One of the things I found most interesting about the story of people who do not feel pain is that some question whether or not these folks that can’t feel pain can also feel empathy or emotional pain.

The idea that empathy is driven from being able to relate to someone else’s pain based on one’s own knowledge of pain is fascinating. Roland Staud, the doctor who treated the teenager profiled in the NYT article, wondered if the connection between feeling physical pain and emotional pain would affect the teen. Author Justin Heckert writes, “[w]e sometimes experience emotional pain physically — Staud used the tried-and-true example of heartbreak, how the end of a romance can cause a physical pain — and he wondered if the relationship between the body and emotions also goes the other way; if a person lacks the ability to feel physical pain, is her emotional development somehow stunted?”

As it turns out, Ashlyn Blocker, the teenager at the center of this article, does cry and does react to others’ pain, even if she can’t describe hurt or pain. Is it true that to experience joy once must feel pain? Is it imperative to have a physical understanding how pain and suffering feels in order to be able to develop empathy? This study on folks with Congenital Insensitivity to Pain (CIP) and empathy found that those with CIP relied on their (what I imagine must have been learned) empathetic skills to imagine others’ pain.

In the past I have used the analogy that when we experience “growing pains” both physically and emotionally that it is a time of development and growth; like Joy, I have always subscribed to the idea that to know happiness and to be empathetic, one must have known pain personally. I have told adoptive parents who describe the ways they try to take the pain involved in adoption away that they can only provide a “soft landing” for their child because you can’t take away or prevent pain, and that it’s a normal part of growing as a human being – and further that those who don’t experience “growing pains” don’t “grow.” But this article gave me pause; clearly there are those growing and developing without first-hand experiencing the “pain” associated with growth; however I am still left curious about how pain is defined; and if the brain still reacts to painful stimuli even if it doesn’t tell your nerves to react.

How much is empathy a learned concept that can be taught or modeled by parents and how much is it a factor of our own experiences? And in what ways does this impact social work?  How schools of social work teach empathy for students who haven’t experienced much personal experience with pain or suffering?  On the other hand, how do we help students that have experienced trauma, pain or suffering to be reflective of how their own experiences impact the way their empathy is triggered and/or applied?

Taking care of yourself and each other

 Yesterday I attended a conference session titled “Facilitating Genuine Dialogue on Diversity While Instructors’ Own Marginalized Identities are Evoked” with Izumi Sakamoto (University of Toronto), Lorraine Gutierrez (University of Michigan) and Billie S. Allan (University of Toronto). I attended a panel by the same presenters a few years ago on “Decolonizing social work curriculum” (I can’t recall the exact title but it was something along these lines). These women are fantastic; Billie began by thanking the ancestors of the land that we were standing on for their gifts which immediately made me feel at home, and brought to mind my first nations colleagues and friends back home.

I attended this session based on the following description:

Although there is a plethora of literature on how to teach cultural competency to students, rarely covered is how instructors with multiple marginalized identities negotiate the classroom space and engage students in genuine dialogue on marginalization and privilege. Presenters will share their experiences in navigating through tension and vulnerabilities.

The shared experiences were, at times, overwhelming and painful and for the larger-than-expected audience for this session, often times quite emotional. I watched as several accomplished and tenured professors shed tears as they described very confrontational and emotionally violent actions that privileged white students had brought to their classrooms. It is experiences like this when I struggle with whether I want to, or have the energy to, continue to hold ground and/or push on within the institutional and social systems that oppress marginalized communities – and that includes schools of social work and social service agencies.

I am fortunate that I have some amazing women of color friends walking with me on our doctoral education journeys but I have to admit that I wish there were more of us in my field. I am concerned that there is a lot of talk about social justice and anti-oppression in social work but in the daily business of social work practice, education, and research there is a surprising silence about confronting the arc towards the status quo. I go to these conferences and have very different experiences that seem to be so dichotomous as to be splitting; on the one hand I can have amazing conversations with radical social workers who speak of decolonizing social work practice while only hours later I’m questioned about my race and ethnicity by a white social worker who thought it was her right to know where I was *really* from (and then proceeded to “guess” based on her ideas about my name).

A few weeks ago at the Adoption Initiative conference in New York, I had the luxury of spending several days with deeply thoughtful and intellectually and socially grounded professors, doctoral students, artists and practitioners with whom I could speak deeply and emotionally about the challenges of being in academia as someone who challenges the current operating paradigms. One of the themes that came up was how important it is to take care of ourselves so that we don’t burn out, self-destruct, or lose ourselves in this difficult work. One of my new friends suggested reading Sisters of the Yam by bell hooks. My copy arrived the day before I left for this conference and I had been sneaking in little moments to read over the past couple of days. So when the group presenter asked each of us to say something about how we move forward, I pulled out this book from my bag, and promised that I would finish reading Sisters of the Yam.

I mentioned on this blog the other day how privileged I am to be facing these choices; but attending this session also increased my sensitivity to the ways in which people of color or people from other marginalized communities make these choices with much greater stakes than those from more privileged backgrounds. This isn’t necessarily a matter of just making choices;  rather if people don’t stay and fight hard to claim a space in the academy (or in the profession) it becomes more difficult for those coming up after to see themselves, as well as perpetuates the hierarchies and gatekeeping that exist. One of the participants of this session I attended mentioned that she carries with her the spirit of her mother, grandmother, aunts and all the other women in her family who came before her who never had the opportunities because they were denied access.

I left this session with more questions than answers and more sadness than hope. And this thought: we already know we are strong and capable because we made it this far, even with the many obstacles in our way; the question is, are our institutions, professions and colleagues with privilege strong enough to change the status quo? Perhaps we’ve been asking the wrong people to shoulder the burden of inclusivity and social change.

We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality

Last night after a full day of conference sessions and dinner with my colleagues, a friend and I decided to take an evening visit to the MLK memorial. This is my 6th visit to DC in the past few years and the last three times I’ve walked the MLK memorial at night. There is something quite profound about the starkness of the sculpture of MLK and the simple, clean lines of the walls of quotes.

My favorite quote from this memorial always makes me think about social work, because I believe what is expressed through these words exactly sums up what I think social work is all about.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.

– MLK, Alabama, 1963

Image

Photo © Will Marlow

Conference musings from a late bloomer

I’m sitting in my hotel room desk, preparing for the first of my two presentations at the Council on Social Work Education’s (CSWE) Annual Program Meeting conference. It has been very interesting to observe this conference (or, as they prefer to call it, Annual Program Meeting, or APM) as a doctoral candidate. When I attended the APM a few years ago I was a graduate student who hadn’t completed all my exams or dissertation proposal, and I was pretty starry-eyed and overwhelmed. Perhaps it’s because of all the traveling I have done since then, the many conferences I’ve attended and presented, but this time feels very different.

Several of my good friends and members of my doctoral cohort are on the job market this year, and they are busy rushing from interview to interview. I’m exhausted just watching them and of course it makes me very reflective about my own job search in a few years. I am learning a lot from my friends, most importantly that thinking strategically and thoughtfully about what I want to do in a couple of years needs to be figured out fairly soon. I could go in many different directions right now.

However, no matter how confusing it seems right now thinking about all the things I want to do in the future and what might be the best direction(s) for me I am not for a second forgetting how privileged I am to have this “problem.”

I was never supposed to be here in the first place. Given my disadvantaged early childhood, thrown away like trash – although  I was given the opportunity to have better than my humble beginnings would have allowed, expectations were fairly low. I was not the “smart one” in my family. It wasn’t until my mid-30s that I first realized I had the capacity to do well academically and that in fact, I loved learning. People can rise to expectations if they’re given both the opportunity and the support. I had both thanks to a very supportive partner in life who encouraged me to take the first step. Then I had some amazing professors who wouldn’t let me self-sabotage my trajectory as a non-traditional student trying to finish her undergraduate degree. They even encouraged me to pursue a master’s degree, which I first found ludicrous. Ten years ago it would have seemed incomprehensible that today I’d be embarking on a research study for my doctoral dissertation and considering which schools I’d like to apply to when I am finished with my program.

These are the things I remember when feeling overwhelmed with all the “choices” I have before me. What a luxury to have them. Not everyone is as fortunate.

Updates

Is it really November already? I had promised myself that I was going to do a better job of keeping up with the blog. Clearly that did not happen! 

I have an over-commitment problem and that often gets me into trouble. Working full time, teaching, presenting at conferences, working in collaboratives and volunteering on top of working on my dissertation and parenting and spending time with my partner and friends is exhausting and I need to work harder on saying “no.” Problem is, I truly love all these things that I am doing and it is hard to take any of them out of the equation!

Now that I have only one conference in the near horizon to prepare for, I’ve been working more on preparing my IRB for my dissertation research. I should have things in order within the next week – in fact my goal is to have it submitted before I go to this conference next Thursday.

And then maybe I’ll find time to blog more. I particularly want to share my thoughts about some of the conferences I’ve attended over this past year.