It was late, and I had found someone to stay home so I could sneak away for an hour. I was on a mission, and the only place to accomplish it was Walmart. Options were limited in my small New Hampshire city.
I remember feeling two things that night: 1) Exhaustion so utter and complete that I was shivering and sweating at the same time and so deep that my muscles screamed when I commanded them to move my bones. 2) Excitement about my mission.
I couldn’t tell you what I was wearing. I couldn’t even guarantee I was wearing pants. I remember a jacket. I don’t remember having bare feet. I couldn’t tell you the last time I brushed my hair or even washed it.
My mission: Cloth diapers. I know, it’s not exciting or Earth shattering, but I had the idea that they could help us, and anything at all that could help was welcome. Cloth diapers would be absorbent and could be layered. My hope was that they would keep us from having to change the sheets as often. Nothing we did day to day hurt my husband as much as changing the sheets, but cancer was breaking down his skin. When skin breaks down, it leaks. When it leaks, sheets need to be changed.
I pray most people don’t know first hand that cancer has an odor. It smells of rotting broccoli. (I apologize for being graphic.) My quests in caring for Jim in his last stage of cancer were to keep him comfortable and to keep the smell of cancer away. The odor threatened me. It threatened all my efforts to deny what was happening. If I was going to face the next minute, I needed that denial more than I needed breath, because of how much I loved him and how much he was my hero and how wrong, wrong, wrong it all was.
I didn’t find what I wanted that night, and I went home defeated. When I didn’t find what I wanted, I’ll bet I made some terrible faces. I might have looked like a bitch to someone. I don’t know. You know what else? I might have looked hilarious.
As far as I know, I was the only person in Walmart that night. I didn’t see anyone else in my exhaustion and frustration. It was before everyone had cameras on their cell phones anyway, so probably nobody snapped a picture of me in my craziness.
I’ve been thinking a lot about empathy and compassion this year. It seems to be a tougher year than most for it. If current events are any indication, it is sorely lacking these days. I think compassion doesn’t just disappear all at once, but it is chipped away little by little.
It may start with something as simple as a candid picture of a person looking crazy while they are at Walmart. Someone takes it. Someone shares it. Everyone laughs. The subject of the pic becomes a joke, instead of a human. I have clicked and laughed before, more than once. I wish I hadn’t. I won’t again. It’s a tiny chip, but an important one. It is step one, possibly followed by calling a kid a thug, a protester a looter, or a vigil a riot. Removing the human context, the pain, the anger, the fear, the loss, removes the empathy and allows prejudices to blossom.
There is a great TED talk about voting with your clicks. The more people click on dehumanizing pictures and videos, the more likely it is that someone will view a person acting strangely as an opportunity for a viral video instead of a reason for concern, or just a bad moment in someone’s day. They are going to whip out a cell phone and start recording instead of helping, instead of trying to be understanding, or just instead of respecting someone’s privacy and minding their own damn business.
Instead of click-voting to take away someone’s humanity, now I try to find proof of goodness and compassion, and click-vote for that. It makes me feel better. If you’d like to do the same, I highly recommend starting with Humans of New York. Brandon Stanton is the living salve for all the dehumanizing click-bait out there. He’s younger than me, but I want to be him when I grow up. He traveled the world in August/September. He and his subjects make me smile-cry all the time.