Empathy as a Prison Key

A few days ago, I decided to watch the recently released, and already very controversial, Netflix Special of comedian David Chappelle, “The Closer”. The final segment—in which Chappelle references Daphne, an aspiring comedian transgender woman, who killed herself—is particularly poignant. And through some conversations I had with friends, I realized how deeply this segment connected with me.

I believe most people have, in their lives, aspects they experience as defects. Think about the following situations, and imagine being in that person’s shoes for a few seconds in each case:

  • being married, and yet thinking of sex with another person
  • loving your siblings, and yet yelling at them for small things
  • being a man, and yet desperately wanting to be a woman
  • strongly desiring to help people, and yet failing to do so
  • wanting to be firm and to say no, and yet caving in to pressure
  • pursuing an exciting idea, and yet not daring to execute it

There are infinite potential failings people may experience, the core of which is a kind of insufficiency for not being good enough with respect to some expectation. And the shame coming from the occasional peek at that combination of a deeply held belief about how one is supposed to be and the reality of not being enough, of not having done and doing enough, is crippling. It is a prison for which the only true key I know is empathy.

David Chappelle explains that Daphne, who was quite inexperienced as a comedian at the time they met, fearlessly accepted his offer to open one of his shows. Her performance was not met with a lot of applause and appreciation. However, instead of hiding from that failure, she takes up a prominent spot in the audience to watch the main act that David delivers. During that act, she starts having a dialog of sorts with him. She then manages to show her dead-pan humor and lands several punchlines the audience cracks up about.

At the end of the show, there is a moment—after David sharing and demonstrating his lack of understanding of transgender individuals—where she says in frustration: “I don’t need you to understand me,” to which David simply replies, “What?” and she goes on, “I just need you to believe that I’m having a human experience. Just believe I’m a person, and I’m going through it.” The audience becomes silent, and before telling the audience good night, David reflects that “it takes one to know one.”

I am struck by how simple it can be to connect. I can remember so many moments in which I felt that something is amiss, and that because I believe that it is supposed to be different, there must be something wrong with me. It’s not even whether it is my fault or not. It is just some defect in me, which in that very moment seems to make it impossible that my life will be a good one. And right there is the potential for connection and, with any luck, integration and healing.

All it takes is for another person to see—without flinching, and so without provoking further shame—my situation and experience for what it is. Once the reality of the situation can be looked at with a kind of benevolent curiosity, an appreciation that life simply is a mess, most of the pain and pressure to pretend that life has to be different than as it is dissolves. And through that process, the reality that is being rejected can be integrated and subsequently transformed.

This process is what I call empathy: a person is having a human experience, and empathy is most sorely needed if that experience is one of shame or pain. The process requires to look at the human condition with humility, curiosity, and openness. Life has these incredibly varied and often incomprehensible flavors. And at times, it can be so painful for a person to look at their own experience and human condition without flinching and looking away. If then another person comes along and sees that reality, and signals, “it is OK to be you. I am here to share your experience, and I will not walk away,” that can be all it takes for healing to begin.

There is an unfortunate coda to Daphne’s story. After a previous Netflix Special, Sticks and Stones, in which David mentioned her, Daphne got into a heated conflict with other members of the transgender community on social media. And while it is impossible to be certain as to whether or not that conflict was a major contributor, Daphne shortly afterwards killed herself.

The sad and powerful message for me is this: if I truly care about people, the idea of meeting them by piling on expectations and shame is the opposite of what is needed for healing. The current moment in history is full of that, people making demands of others for what they see as dangerous and seemingly defective behavior. We are, as a society and culture, full of anxiety about the future, and it is incredibly difficult to see through that fog of fear into the hearts of those we suspect being responsible for the damage we experience.

This is true for transgender rights and the fear about how society treats these people just as much as for climate change, abortion, or for how a lot of people see members of the opposing political party as “the enemy.” And with every demand we make—no matter how well meaning, because we want to protect the people we love—we ensure that we remain locked in our respective prison cells. If we want to be free, empathy is the key.

And I admit that it is a difficult process. It is so easy to get caught up in our fear and desire to care for the people we see as being threatened. And the desire is, indeed, a good one. What I see as missing the mark is the strategy of increased pressure through ever harsher expectations. So long as we are tense with fear, so long will we and the people we hold responsible remain locked up.

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