When Empathy Hurts

My professor asked us to think about what things make us uncomfortable; those “buttons” that, when pressed, make it difficult for us to cope as we normally do.

Aggression was my first thought. Violence has always made me shiver. Second, though, came something more specific: I am deeply uncomfortable when I am unable to hide my privilege.

I prefer to stand disconnected from my parents’ wealth, and I immerse myself in Latino food or African music to escape the reality that my skin color is so much lighter than my friends’. I sheepishly tell others about my travel plans or other opportunities given to me by my private university. I sit in the homeless shelter where I volunteer and hope none of the clients ask me about my comfortable and consistent job as a yoga teacher, or notice when both of my supportive parents join to help out.

Many of my group members felt uncomfortable when, in India, we witnessed a homeless man sleeping on the dirty curb, or when an elderly woman knocked on our air-conditioned van windows asking for spare change. We shut our eyes and winced as we unintentionally, but knowingly, paraded our new clothes, stamp-covered passport, and Western features before people who had been born into a society that shunned their dark skin, inherited caste, or religious devotion.

Kerala, India
A woman in a cashew factory who asked me to take her photo

I am working through my own discomfort that comes from the stark contrast between my fortunate life and the challenging trek of so many others. Even though I teach self-acceptance in my yoga classes as the first step toward universal empathy, I struggle with it myself. Empathy is feeling all of the heartbreak in this world, but also accepting the uncontainable joy. Working on this second part can help to make us all better allies to those who need only to be acknowledged.

Cognitively I know that privilege is not something to be ashamed of, simply aware of. Emotionally, I have more steps to take before this can resonate fully within myself. With three more weeks, we’ll see how this one goes.

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