Singing up the Mountain

There’s a piece of wisdom I’ve often heard, though I’ve never traced its origin:

In life, we’re all just hiking up the mountain. You can complain about how your feet are sore, or you can sing all the way up. Your choice.

I’m no champion of relentless positivity. I maintain that, for people whose brains are wired like mine, mantras and affirmations bring on more depression than inspiration. I don’t wear rose-coloured glasses well, and even my most indulgent friends remind me to watch my pessimistic streak.

Yet, the idea of life as a long, mandatory hike appeals to me. Some will have an easier time than others. Some will find the path to be wide and accommodating, designed for their every need and wish. Others, especially those who represent at least one minority, will find the hike more arduous. Perhaps the path is narrow and winding. Perhaps your equipment is in rough shape, and you don’t have the means to upgrade. Perhaps your way is obstructed by treacherous pebbles that will send you tumbling if you’re not careful. Perhaps it’s littered with concerned strangers telling you to turn back, choose a less ambitious path, or adjust your pace to a speed they consider more appropriate.

Whatever your mountain looks like, whichever obstacles you might encounter, only you can decide how best to climb it. You can take advantage of the wide, welcoming paths, never sparing a thought for those on more dangerous journeys. You might decide to stray from your comfortable stroll to shift a boulder or clear a trail for someone else. If, like me, your hike is rocky and unpredictable, you may want to contribute to a large-scale effort to make the hike safer and more equitable for everyone who is stuck on this mountain with you. (This mountain is yours. There is no right way–only your way.)

There is another choice to make, and as I experience one of the most trying periods of my life, I’m thinking more often than usual about this mountain of mine. There have been times—and I’m sure there will be more—when climbing felt natural and simple. Boulders were moved from my path by forces much stronger than me. Fellow hikers let me lean on their broad shoulders. The map was clear. I knew where I was going and how I’d get there.

At this moment, my landscape is much more uncertain, and I am tired. My feet are sore. My canteen is nearly empty, and my fellow hikers carry burdens even heavier than my own. I can’t hear myself think for the struggles around me, and my desire to broaden the path for others is tinged with despair at my own sad smallness.

But as I write this, as I contemplate a path that has never seemed less welcoming, I know that it’s time I started singing again.

My song might falter while I cling to jagged places. Tears and frustration might dampen its beauty. Sometimes, I’ll be making up the lyrics, or humming nonsensically, because damn it if I haven’t forgotten all the words.

But I don’t know of any other way to keep climbing.

So I’m gonna sing my way up this mountain. It won’t be pretty, but it will sustain me. It will have to do, because turning back? Giving up? Slowing my step to suit someone else’s comfort? These aren’t options—not for me.

Yes, we can still complain that our feet are sore, that we are tired, that we can’t read our maps. These admissions are valid and necessary. We will need to pause, rest, drink some water, lean on the nearest shoulder.

But whenever we can, wherever we can, let’s not forget to sing.

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The Empathy Gap: When “Been There, Done That” is not Enough

As someone who has been told several times she is too empathetic to survive in this harsh world, I assumed I knew a lot about empathy. I never pretended to know how to kindle it in others, but I rarely had difficulty placing myself in even the most unusual positions to investigate all sides of an issue. While this tendency to favour the empathetic response is often involuntary and sometimes overwhelming, I always viewed it as a net positive. Surely, by being such an effortlessly empathetic soul—if not an effortlessly kind one—I must be adept at feeling and demonstrating compassion for others, especially when I’ve walked in similar shoes. Since I’m privileged to be trusted with so many personal stories of struggle, my well-ingrained empathetic response was one of the few traits about which I was fully confident.
Like so many of my long-held and cherished assumptions, I ran into compelling evidence that I was wrong. What is more, I should not have needed a formal study on the empathy gap to convince me; my own negative experiences with the disability community should have been sufficient. According to the authors of this study, the common belief that walking in someone else’s shoes ought to inspire compassion and even leniency is statistically inaccurate. This might not feel true at first, but the more I pondered it, the more sense it made.
Take this example from a few years ago, when I was beginning to find my place in the disability community: An acquaintance, who lived with physical and mental disabilities, was finally able to obtain permanent, fulfilling employment. I expected he would dedicate some of his emotional resources to encouraging others who had not yet reached that goal, or at least affirm that the struggle is, in fact, real. Within months of his triumph, however, he was already cutting fellow disabled people down, suggesting that aspiring workers should simply try harder, and campaigning to cut benefits meant to help those aspiring workers survive while they continued their job searches. The years he had spent searching for his own job, the discrimination he had battled, the pain he had suffered—he had either forgotten them altogether, minimized their power, or attributed his success to superior mettle. Whatever the reason, I drew away from him in shock and disappointment, unable to believe someone could be so hypocritical and heartless.
The idealist in me is loath to admit it, but his response wasn’t just statistically normal. His response, extreme though it was, is one I see in most people I know, including my oh-so-empathetic self. I’m working to exercise compassion and empathy more consciously and intentionally, but I still catch myself dismissing or minimizing someone else’s experiences on the bogus basis that I’ve been there, I’ve done that, and I’m on the other side of it or, at least, I’ve learned to shoulder it. Meanwhile, the nondisabled people I know are more likely to listen attentively and judge less readily, because they have not worn those shoes and do not feel qualified to do more than be supportive. You will find far too many people, disabled and nondisabled, who are quick to judge a situation even and especially when they have no knowledge of it, but most people know when they’re out of their depth, and won’t pretend otherwise.
Now that I’ve been a multiply-disabled person for decades, and worked in a disability-adjacent field for a few years, I am forced to confront the reality that lived experiences don’t automatically result in increased compassion and empathy. In fact, disabled people and those close to them tend to err on the side of harshness, reasoning that they or someone they know managed to “overcome,” which means they have little or no sympathy for anyone who is less successful. There’s a well-worn joke in the disability employment field about how case managers with disabilities are the toughest, and for the most part it checks out. Disabled case managers, and those with disabled family members or friends, may have more knowledge and may make fewer generalizations on average, but they are also likely to say something like “I was able to do this, so why can’t you?” When I wrote about my fear of blind people, this is the core of what I was describing: nondisabled people typically take me at face value after a while, but disabled people often seem to be sizing me up. In an ugly and ironic twist, I have caught myself sizing up my clients in precisely the same way.
As is my custom, I thought about calls to action before sitting down to write this post. I dislike bringing up an issue without pointing toward potential solutions, and this is no exception. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much direct action to be taken against the empathy gap, besides acknowledging it exists and fighting the instinct to judge, give unsolicited advice, or condemn when we encounter someone who is wearing shoes very like our own.
When you feel empathy, ask yourself the hard questions: Is this a pure feeling? Am I using my past experiences to offer guidance and validation? Is the advice I’m giving, the story I’m telling, the wisdom I’m dispensing welcome? Solicited? Needed? Useful? Am I sharing understanding, or centreing myself? Do I have any right to speak to this situation at all, or am I talking when I ought to be listening?
I’ll close with insightful advice from the authors of the study I referenced earlier. According to Ruttan, McDonnel, and Nordgren, it’s best to get out of your own head, place less emphasis on your individual experiences, and focus on the situation in front of you. If it helps, think of all the many people in the world struggling with the same burdens, instead of zeroing in on your personal journey.
Armed with this knowledge and these strategies, I hope we can all put our empathy to good use, and grow into a more supportive, less judgmental community. Come join me!