Fonda Shen | Humbled by the Inadequacy of Empathy

By Fonda Shen

“Can you imagine, she asked, what it means to spend eight hours a day standing up to your waist in the mortadella cooking water? Can you imagine, she asked, what it means to have your fingers covered with cuts from slicing the meat off animal bones? Can you imagine what it means to go in and out of the refrigerated rooms at twenty degrees below zero, and get ten lire more an hour—ten lire—for cold compensation? If you imagine this, what do you think you can learn from people who are forced to live like that?”— Elena Ferrante, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay[1]

A little while back, I had wanted to tie together our conversation with Reginald Dwayne Betts[2] and the potential of our next discussion with Dorothy Roberts on family policing. To me, the abolition of family policing was a necessary conversation following prison abolition. We have discussed the importance of not just tearing down prisons, but at the same time building a world where there cannot be prisons. A discussion of family policing would drive home a warning against replicating the same punitive and racist logics through social service programs. It would be an invitation for us to rethink our networks of caring and caregiving. Convinced that prisons, police, and social services will stop strangers’ troubles from bleeding into our own, we have siloed ourselves to only care for ourselves and our closest friends and family. We need to expand the extent of our empathy and care.

But then things changed.

Around the same time I was reading Ferrante, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had just spearheaded a bill that would reimburse families for COVID funeral costs. When I first read about this, I felt oddly disturbed by this news. It seemed almost insulting to discuss money in the face of such an irreplaceable loss. “Here are a few thousand dollars to compensate you for the burial of your father.” How could money fill in a person-sized void?

Then, as I was stepping out of the shower, I overheard my parents talking in another room. “I’m sending my brother $30,000 for my dad’s funeral and hospice costs,” my father said. My mother mumbled something indistinguishable. A chair scraped on the floor, then quiet. I toweled off, wrapped up my hair to dry it, and walked out, shocked. It turns out, it is quite expensive to die. I saw my dad sitting in the living room, reading something on his phone. He smiled at me. I smiled back. I said something about homework, work, a meeting. I pretended that I hadn’t heard anything, subconsciously speeding up my steps to avoid any further conversation. How could anything I say fill a person-sized void?

“What is that feeling of injustice of not having parents anymore?” The first time I read this sentence in a short story whose title I have forgotten, the word “injustice” made me pause for a minute. Injustices require bodies in the street, cardboard signs with acrylic paint, lawyers jumping out of their seats, blazing editorials. It seemed too grand a word to capture a private loss, too huge to fit that person-sized void. The quietly whispered words, “I miss you,” are not what injustices look like.

Except they are. When injustices touch the flesh, that’s exactly what they look like. They look like grief, frustrations, regrets. And for better or for worse, that is what I heard in the tension between the Dwayne Betts who wanted to free his friends and the Dwayne Betts who wanted to keep the man who raped his mother in prison forever. To those sitting comfortably behind their MacBook screens: Have you felt it? If not, how dare you interfere?

In the third book of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, Lila, the best friend of the protagonist Elena, is working at a freezing, dirty, dangerous sausage factory to support her young son as a single mother. One day at a meeting of young, educated, leftist and communist intellectuals, she is asked to speak on the subject of the working class. It is from her speech that I took the epigraph. There is nothing to learn from workers, she says. And the “working class”? She doesn’t know the “working class.”

Unlike the ephemeral concept of justice, injustices can be felt like splinters under our nails. And somehow, our smooth, structural, well-theorized concepts of justice often fit poorly into the sticky, jagged, festering wounds that injustices leave on us.

I had thought the tension in Betts’s positions— his full commitment to his friends’ liberty and his equally deep investment in the incarceration of the man who raped his mother— seemed selfish, in a way. But of course, I had assumed, as I believe most of us do, that moments of pain, grief, loss, harm, suffering, and all the feelings that capture our darkest moments, are transferrable. That when we are hurt, we experience it as one case among millions, billions, trillions of injuries that are the byproduct of being human. That our pain is related to others’. This, I have discovered, is not the case. We experience it as a unique and catastrophic interruption to our lives, never before felt by another living being. And this is true. For us.

Child welfare, prisons, police — these are issues of huge, structural injustices, forms of social control targeted at Black communities. But the voids that they leave in people’s lives are singular. No fractured relationship looks exactly like another. No losses are the same.

What does it mean to police and regulate relationships that are intimate and unique? In Shattered Bonds, Professor Dorothy Roberts wrote of cases where foster children were pushed into adoption because the state had decided that the children were more closely bonded to their adoptive parents than their biological ones. What does it mean for the state to tell primarily Black children what pieces would fit most snugly into the voids in their lives? To tell them which injustice they felt more keenly?

I had considered using a different epigraph, from George Eliot’s Middlemarch: “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow, or the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar that lies on the other side of silence.”[3] This passage fit better with my original intention to rethink our networks of care and empathy. I wanted to talk about the importance of hearing the squirrel’s heart beat, as George Eliot said, even if the ensuing roar overwhelmed us. We have a responsibility to try to understand each other’s needs and try, even if we fail, to fulfill them. Unlike the prison system, the supposed purpose of the child welfare system is to maintain care for children. Obviously, that is not the case. But to me, it seemed like a good place to begin a conversation about caregiving that I hoped would eventually lead us to recognize that if we spread our empathy far enough, it would encompass even those who hurt us. I didn’t mean this in the turn-the-other-cheek biblical sense. Nor did I mean it in a Nietzschean sense. It wasn’t quite “What are my parasites to me? … May they live and prosper: I am strong enough for that!”[4]

Instead, I wanted to ask if we could ever care about each other so much that retribution would be pointless. Why would you seek retribution against a particular person if everyone around you cared that you hurt? If the very person against whom you are seeking retribution is someone you cared about? I wanted to ask if we could ever care for others’ children the way we cared for our own. If we did, how could we stand the idea of punishing parents by starving their children? Punishing struggling parents at all?

But now, instead, this clean and smooth hope seems dwarfed by the daunting uniqueness of individual suffering. Our desire to care for others always surpasses our capability to understand what others need. I take comfort in Bernard E. Harcourt’s advocacy for a universal basic income and Dorothy Roberts’s call for a positive rather than negative notion of liberty. To me, they are solutions and suggestions that allow us to care for others in recognition of our inability to empathize completely. They build room for a certain amount of messiness and uncertainty. Even so, while writing this short, disarrayed piece, I kept hoping that I would find a gleaming answer to tie everything together at the end.

But I never found it. I likely never will. So I will end here, humbled by the sheer inadequacy of our capacity for empathy, yet overwhelmed by the feeling that there is still someone to be heard, something we must do.


[1] Elena Ferrante, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, trans. Ann Goldstein (New York: Europa Editions, 2014), 121-122.

[2] Reginald Dwayne Betts joined the CCCCT for Abolition Democracy 9/13: Prison Abolition, where he spoke of a tension between his role as a public defender and his wish to see the man who raped his mother remain in prison. He wrote more on this topic in “Kamala Harris, Mass Incarceration and Me,” in the New York Times Magazine.

[3] George Eliot, Middlemarch, ed. David Carroll (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1992), 189.

[4] Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, trans. Walter Kaufman and R.J. Hollingdale (New York: Vintage, 1989), 72.