‘Cause, you know, people say some stupid shit. And they don’t mean to be insensitive assholes. Mostly. Even if they really, really are homophobic, gynophobic, transphobic, anthropophobic, vivophobic (is that a thing?) they often don’t mean to be insensitive assholes. They just don’t get another person’s inner life.
But I’m getting back to my point which is that if you’re courteous and calm, you can learn some really interesting things about how other people think and feel. For example, some of the comments I read on a quote from an article on the experience of raising kids with special needs. One of the interviewees said that she loved her kids with her whole being and would do anything for them (italics mine), but if she had it to do over, she would not have chosen to have those children.
Aieeee! Horror! What a monster! She hates her kids! She hates handicapped kids! She’s a selfish evil child abuser who shouldn’t even HAVE those feelings let alone EXPRESS them. Special Needs kids are a SPECIAL BLESSING! They are inhumanly virtuous and loving. What if her children were to read this article written for adults and parents of special needs kids? They would be destroyed, utterly destroyed!
The adult readers of the quote couldn’t empathize with someone whose experience was so far removed from their own. Instead, they reacted entirely in the context of their own receptive experience. Instead of empathizing with the speaker, they identified with the people she was speaking about—not even the people she was speaking to, but the people who shaped the experience she was speaking about: how they would feel if those words were said to them, about them. They could not empathize with her.
As it happens, I have some experience in raising special needs kids, and I can entirely sympathize with all the parents who feel, "I love them with all my heart, but I wouldn't go through this again." Who says parents can’t be whole people with lives and dreams and regrets and things they would have liked to do that didn’t involve dedicating their entire lives to a special needs child who will never be independent and for whom there just aren’t anywhere enough provisions in our culture to make it a sane proposition? And who says that a person under an intolerable burden isn’t allowed to wish for a lifting of that weight.
Since when is it wrong to say, “If I had another life to choose, I would like to try something different,” or even, “I would like to have a life where I didn’t have to carry this weight.” Hey, that’s what reincarnation is all about, right? And who says that even a special needs person can’t learn like the rest of us that our parents are whole people? A time comes in every child's life when it's time to say, "Really Mom? You wanted to be a journalist but you never quite had the chance? Let's find a way for you to have that experience now that I'm grown up."
Some people resented her saying that anyone who didn’t share her feelings was a liar. At first I thought, well that’s fair enough; her statement is a form of projection, and many people probably don’t feel exactly the way she does.
But as I listened to people talking about how wrong and evil it is for someone to feel the way she did, I began to see what she meant about liars. When someone tells you that it’s wrong and evil for you to feel something that upsets them, isn’t that a lie? It’s a kind of abuse. It’s also an admission that they would rather lie about the reality of having special needs kids than face it, much less try to do anything about it. Like babysit your kids for a weekend while you go to a hotel and sleep for forty-eight uninterrupted hours.
And when someone who has never raised a special-needs child says, “Sure, I will never experience the bone-aching stress, loneliness, isolation, fear, exhaustion and frustration of having a special needs child, but I will also never know that special joy,” are they really saying that they wish their child had autism or Down’s Syndrome so that they could share in the special joy you get to feel every day? Are they really envious of you? If that’s not a lie, it’s Munchhausen by proxy. Maybe that special joy is the joy of being told you’re a saint or a martyr.
And if they already have a special needs child, are they really saying they wouldn’t, if they had a choice, skip the “special joy” part and settle for the regular joy of not having to carry all that extra weight and of knowing instead that their child has every chance of living independently, of not dying young, of having a job or a career and learning to drive and getting married and having kids of their own? If they’re not lying, they are self-deluded which is just another kind of lie. Especially when you try to force that delusion on someone else.
There’s ignorance, of course, of what is involved in the experience of caring for a special needs child, and there’s nothing morally wrong with ignorance, but when you deride and belittle someone for their feelings about a situation you have not experienced, that ignorance is willful. And when you choose not to dispel your own ignorance, that’s another kind of lie.
It makes me wonder how much of our social conflicts have to do with being overwhelmed by the discomfort of other people’s truths. The people I was talking with actively and violently rejected the opportunity to improve their knowledge of another person’s experience, and by doing so, they perpetuate the struggle of parents who need help.
Oops! Ha ha, what does this have to do with writing? Or with fiction? Quite a lot, actually. Fiction is where we go to share the experience of people unlike ourselves. Oh sure, we tend to prefer to read about people more or less in our general social vicinity, but the best fiction makes even the most alien of aliens reachable.
I could be all pompous and narcissistic, and say that enlightening the reader is the high-minded passion that drives me to write. Ha ha. No, I just like to make up stories and entertain people (including myself) with them. Part of that entertainment is in decoding other people’s actions. Our brains are set up to decode other people’s feelings. It feels good. Our brains give us a little jolt of dopamine whenever we think we’ve done it successfully. Unfortunately, that jolt isn’t always as powerful as the other forces that muddle our brains, like fear and anger and resentment.
I never did convince anyone that it’s okay for the parent of a special needs child to wish she could have had an easier life or daydream about what it would feel like to be free of that stress, but I did hear them saying that they would be terribly hurt to hear that fantasy expressed by someone whose love or care they depended on. Someday, there will be character in one of my books who feels the same way.