Oh, Empathy, where art thou?

For some people, in their race to the top of the success ladder, empathy is crushed under the wheels of their ambition.

From My Side of the Desk:

Oh, Empathy, where art thou?

How easy it is to forget the struggles of those people we have left behind as we clamber up our chosen ladders of success. As we dream of power, privilege and economic gain, respect and understanding that once bound us with our fellow trenchmates may falter. In the minds of some who have attained leadership roles, those with whom they once served now exist solely to serve them. Empathy? Bah humbug!

An old adage states that, “Memory is the first to go.” A more accurate axiom is, “The memory of empathy is the first to go.” Some teachers often chastise students for texting their friends, disrupting lessons as they bubble over with the latest rumors detailing who is doing what to/with whom, or sliding into their seats as the vibrations from the tardy bell ebb because they remained in the hall for a lingering good-bye with their significant other. When they sat on the other side of the desk, did these educators never pass notes during class, or lean over to tell Linda that Kathy and Joe broke up, or savor a lingering farewell as the halls emptied for another hour of class? Do they not remember the urgency of their childhood joys and sorrows?

I am not at all suggesting that the outbursts resulting from hormonal highs should rule the classroom. A little empathy, though, regains order-and respect I might add-a heck of a lot more quickly than a show of power for power’s sake. The same goes for those who have left the classroom for administrative positions. Teachers’ concerns about reaching apathetic or disruptive students, parental demands or bureaucratic dictates are brushed aside like dandruff by some principals who, with their promotion, consider themselves above the fray. After all, they now have meetings to attend, higher rungs on the professional ladder to seek, and the Big Picture to consider.

Impressive principals who understand that to L.E.A.D. means to Listen, to Empathize, to Attend to concerns and to Dedicate themselves to their staffs, students, parents and community are treasured. They understand that meetings should never overshadow the morale of those who helped them earn their positions of power; they know that the success of those under their tutelage will enable them to move onward and upward, and they realize that no Big Picture would exist without all of parts that make the whole.

Successful bosses of any profession, be it political, corporate, civilian or military, fully comprehend that the bottom line… the goal…the mission is achieved by L.E.A.Ding with integrity, with respect and with compassion. Intimidation, harassment, micromanagement, debasement, and bullying are never, ever tools of their trade. Whether they ever read his writings or not, they take to heart the words of Leo Buscaglia, a college professor and author, who said, “Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”

Mr. Buscaglia’s words come to mind every time that I think of the struggles of a former student and one of my son’s best friends. A West Point graduate, J served numerous tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq on his road to earning the rank of Major in the U.S. Army. Diagnosed with PTSD, traumatic brain injury (he experienced too many up close and personals with IEDs) and a chronic bad back, he recently retired from honorably serving his country in a capacity that he held in high esteem. For more than a year, his sufferings have been exacerbated by a commander of the worst order. In a letter, J detailed his experiences under this man’s control better than I could ever paraphrase. Here is a part of his recitation:

 “Too many mentally injured warriors from across the brigades at Fort _____, each with personal horror stories, say that their issues are not systemic but are part of a larger problem. Units often take these medically boarding Soldiers to the field. For what purpose is this demanded of them other than cruel harassment? Soldiers who spend all week at required formations and attending group therapy are put on 24-hour weekend duty because they haven't "worked" all week. These soldiers almost always are on medication and have profiles advising against such actions. In essence, they are punished for obeying orders that keep them from performing their expected duties- obligations they cannot execute because of their medical issues. This is a Catch-22 situation and a lose-lose state of affairs for the afflicted warriors.

Fort _____ has now instituted a "step down" approach in its care of warriors with PTSD. Soldiers with this medical condition who attend daily therapy in civilian hospitals are told, without prior warning, that they will no longer be allowed to attend the hospital five days a week but will be stepped down to three. The other days must be spent back in their units where the soldiers feel like bulls eyes in a target-rich environment. All of the soldiers being stepped down are being medically boarded out of the military and are currently incapable of working but still capable of being harassed. This causes a great deal of stress to the soldiers who see this action as yet another way this commander is trying to get them to snap. 

That is what all this boils down to: Snapping. I spent most of my time at Fort ______ trying not to snap. My superiors poked and poked, but I knew that if I snapped too hard they would find a way to get me out of the Army without any of my benefits. On one occasion, my brigade commander asked what I expected of him. When I responded, "Respect, sir," he threw me out of his office.

These insults were even easier for them to inflict on an enlisted soldier. Those of us in therapy often talked about the commanders at Fort _______ not even caring about which way we snapped: suicide, homicide, threats, etc. That is not how I would want my soldiers to think about me.”

This young man’s story, and those of any of his peers who could have penned this letter, breaks my heart and angers me more than I can say. How can some humans treat those who are suffering so heartlessly? Unfortunately, the man he speaks of is not a lone renegade. The movie, Horrible Bosses, tries to infuse humor in workplaces by revealing quite clearly those who rule the roost with whatever denigrating methods they have at their disposal.  Yes, the movie was hilarious; probably because we sometimes have to make light of our situations so we don’t drown in pools of despair. Maybe someday, a few soldiers who suffer mentally and physically from their experiences will script a Horrible Commanders or a One Flew Over the Commander’s Nest movie. But not now- not while the pain is so wrenchingly real.

For all too many of us, our lives seem bereft of empathy. Somewhere, in our head-long rush between jobs, families and friends, as we juggle our many balls of responsibility, we drop the compassion globe. As we reach each new rung on the ladder of life we quickly block out the memory of the emotional, physical and spiritual struggles we endured, choosing to breathe a sigh of relief for making it. We forget the pain and wallow in the gain. Along the way, absorbed by our own wants and needs, we also overlook the wants and needs of those who touch our lives- those who desire our empathy just as we long for theirs.

Oh, Empathy, where art thou?  It’s in the actions of the working-for-a-salary mom who picks up her package of chicken breasts and bag of romaine and moves out of the Express Lane at 5:45pm so the frazzled mother with more than fifteen items, a petulant toddler and a squalling baby can go ahead of her. It’s in the words of the principal who understands that Mrs. Smith is struggling with the recent death of her mother and relieves her from her mentoring duties during the Standards of Learning tests so she can grade her backload of junior essays. It’s in the signature of the commander who approves professional psychological treatment for his men suffering from PTSD when he really doesn’t understand the condition because he has never been near a combat zone. It’s in the hugs from a friend, mother, father, sibling, teacher, boss or colleague who listens when we reiterate our tales of woe at this sometimes heartless and unfair world.

As Jeremy Aldana, a contemporary writer/blogger said, “It’s not so much the journey that’s important, as is the way that we treat those we encounter and those around us along the way.”

Until next week,


This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Fizban June 01, 2012 at 12:46 PM
The scars of war are not often visible. But are just as deadly. A bullet wound will heal. But the demons of the mind last until death.


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