empathy and betterment

Though the grass is green, this dry spell has the shrubs curled up and thirsty. In their withering, I see myself, stressed and brittle. This journey as the mother of a child like Calvin—a teen who is legally blind, incontinent, nonverbal, physically and cognitively impaired, beaten by seizures and the drugs meant to thwart them—is a hard one both physically and emotionally. I'm chronically sleep deprived, burdened with worry, at times gripped by fear, anxiety and the shadow of devastation and despair. I wish I could somehow flee this reality. My mind is constantly buzzing with dour, unanswerable questions:

when will Calvin's next seizure be? will he choke on a piece of food? will he trip over a chair, run into a wall, fall down the stairs? do his bones ache from growing so fast? will he ever be able to tell us yes and no? will his various caregivers love him, keep him safe from harm? will he get good therapy at school? will he suffer another pain episode? will he ever be calm again? will he outgrow his seizures? will he die from one?

It appears that these burdens and worries most people don't fully understand. I see evidence in the scowls and puzzlement of strangers, in the way some folks avert their eyes when passing us, in the ways we have been dismissed or patronized by smug doctors, hospital nurses, and a handful of school employees over the years. I've little doubt that in my assertive, hypervigilant, helicopter mama-ness, I have haters and eye-rollers. There are those who don't take me seriously, think I'm oversensitive, inflexible, overbearing, unhinged. There are those who run when they see me coming, or who regularly assume the conspicuous and irksome cover-your-ass posture and pose. I wish all of them could walk in my shoes.

As is true with most of this nation's disenfranchised, misunderstood communities—the Disabled, People of Color, LGBTQI people, Muslims, asylum seekers, immigrants—Calvin and I are sometimes regarded with caution, mistrust and fearfulness, even perhaps contempt. I attribute this mistreatment to ignorance and a resulting empathy gap, an inability by some to more fully understand the struggles those on the margins of majority straight-White-Christian-able-bodied society endure, though all it really takes is openness and humility, to listen well and put oneself in other's shoes. But perhaps it's easier to avoid doing that, to stop short of admitting privilege, and less upsetting to avoid acknowledging ugly truths. But denial and indifference to the hardships of others gets us nowhere—as individuals, as communities, as a nation—on the path to betterment.

Wednesday morning, over coffee and a tasty blueberry scone at our favorite Dog Bar Jim cafe, a friend and I discussed the wave of asylum seekers from Angola and The Democratic Republic of the Congo whom our town has recently aided and absorbed. She recounted a conversation she'd had about the African soccer players who have joined the high school team, some who are quite good. Apparently, some parents are bemoaning the amount of playtime the asylum-seekers are getting (I can't help but wonder if their reaction would be different if the students were from Italy or England). When my friend's own soccer-playing son questioned it, she offered him an analogy: if he were to transfer to a new school with weaker players, he might get lots of playtime, too. A thoughtful kid, he understood.

My friend and I went on to discuss how helping asylum seekers is not the zero-sum game some purport is true. For example, we can also help our homeless neighbors and veterans, and we do. Furthermore, asylum seekers, once they're cleared to work, often fill the grueling, dangerous, tedious jobs many Americans don't want—harvesting crops, packing meat, caring for the elderly in nursing homes. My friend told me of a refugee physician who is driving a taxi just to make ends meet.

After our coffee date, I imagined the asylum seekers playing soccer with my friends' kids—one of a million things my son will never be able to do. Some of them speak four or five languages, having picked up Spanish and English on their journey north from Brazil. Many, if not most, traveled thousands of miles through South and Central America having escaped life-threatening circumstances back home. On their trek they survived beatings, muggings, hunger, thirst, and five months of travel on foot, at times through dense forests dark as night, stepping over the dead bodies of other refugees who would not make it to the USA. The ones who made it here are strong, tenacious survivors who likely have what it takes to make the best Americans. And yet, because of fearmongering and ignorance, they are sometimes met with animus and contempt, perhaps even envy and hatred. With this thought I imagine Calvin and the folks who seem to see him—without understanding his purity, love and struggle—as a freak, aversion or contagion.

I wonder what would happen if asylum seekers had the chance to tell their stories. Who would listen? Who would understand? Will these refugees, like Calvin, inspire some of us to become better people, better members of society? Will some of them give rise to other, better soccer players? Who, upon hearing their stories, would feel empathy and embrace them? And who would stand their ground, unmoved?

Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times


  1. I'm better and more empathetic for following your journey. I read every post. If you ever make it back to the Pacific Northwest, let's please get together :) Kelcey

    1. dear kelcey,

      you have no idea how nice it is to know that you are out there reading and to remember coaching you and others. my job at overlake was one of the best i've ever had. i think of that time in my life almost daily. it was so rewarding to see the team go from dead-last to nearly winning the champs. all you swimmers were amazing to me in your own ways. so proud to see the work you are doing as an adult. so humbled to know you read my posts and get something out of them. thank you for your kind sentiments!

      if you're ever in maine, look us up!