An aphorism: If you are being chased by a bear, you don’t have to run faster than the bear. You just have to run faster than the slowest runner.
The parallel between outrunning a bear and soothing ourselves with the lowerarchy may seem tenuous, but somehow our brains, through a warped internal logic, do reason that our children will not be “eaten” as long as some other child is slower. As one contributor commented, we think, “if someone’s lower down on the ladder, well, then, my kid’s gonna make it.” The logic works with a bear. Unfortunately, not so much with social survival.
I’ve been thinking about the question I posed last week about why our sympathy flows unequivocally while our empathy does not. My initial answer returns to the fear and the reassurance the lowerarchy provides. I share the feeling of many of the commenters who related that their primary emotion is fear is about the future: What does the future hold for our school-aged kids? What does it mean for us as caregivers? If someone else is facing, and surviving, more difficult challenges than our own, then surely our challenges are manageable. We do not need to feel so afraid if we can know that someone else must be even more afraid.
But I also think our vigilance against empathy serves an interesting purpose for self-preservation. One of my least favorite expressions of sympathy from well-meaning acquaintances is, “I don’t know how you do it.” I’ll probably write a separate blog post about the alienating impact of that line someday, but for now I want to focus on my silent response. Mostly I don’t think about how I do it. Most days I forget to feel sorry for myself and for my child. Most days even the surprises are not too surprising. Most days I suppress the fear and fatigue, because “that’s how I do it.”
If I allow myself to be fully empathetic to another parent’s experience, especially if that parent is struggling, I face two potential dangers. Returning to the theme of last week’s post, I lose the irrational, schadenfreude-based security that my child will be okay because she is not as bad off as . . . that kid. In addition, though, empathy would lead me to feel the fear and fatigue the other parent is feeling. At least for me, on the days I feel strong and competent I cannot afford to risk falling into that place. I cannot allow myself to be pulled under on the days when I am successfully treading water. Every one of us has strong days, either optimistic or accepting, and every one of us has tearful days of despair. From a safe distance we can support each other, but I think some voice inside shields us from total empathy. It could be dangerous to open ourselves so fully.
From that perspective, the lowerarchy does not seem so sinister. It establishes a boundary that may be artificial but is nonetheless necessary to our individual endurance. My moral sensibility still finds it distasteful (with some sound reasons, I think), but I concede that it serves multiple purposes. Some of those functions I need to survive.
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