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Why is empathy so hard to offer?

The context

Have you seen the film 50/50?  It’s loosely based on the real-life experience of its script-writer, Will Reiser, who had a rare form of spinal cancer that didn’t respond to chemotherapy and was eventually excised through surgery.

If I heeded the Guardian newspaper critic, we probably wouldn’t have gone.

‘Charmless, shallow, smug and unlikeable. A ‘bromance’ weepie about cancer’  the critic said.

The Daily Telegraph critic thought differently:  ‘One of the best films of the year. You’ll take some emotions with you when you leave the theatre.’

Hmmm. How was it for me? Well…. I didn’t feel at all weepy until near the end when the cancer sufferer, Adam, was finally facing the reality that his life depended on the outcome of an imminent operation. ‘I could die without ever having told a woman I loved her’ he said poignantly.

But it wasn’t the emotions of the film that have stayed with me. What has stuck is the difficulty of knowing what to say to someone with only a 50/50 chance of survival.

What the film illustrates very clearly is that Adam’s friends and family have so much pain of their own welling up inside them that they find it hard to be empathic towards him.

Adam is an apparently fit and active 27year old – unaware of the potentially lethal tumour creeping down his spine. But backpain and breathlessness eventually lead him to seek medical advice.

What happened next…

Scenario 1:

Adam awaits the results of tests and X-rays.

The doctor bustles into the consulting room and without a word to Adam, retreats behind his desk. He picks up his Dictaphone and dictates a torrent of medical jargon about Adam’s condition, still without making eye contact with his patient.

Adam’s relaxed demeanour morphs into confusion and then terror.

For the first time, the doctor looks directly at Adam. ‘The hospital has the very best support service’ he says.

Where’s the empathy for Adam?

Scenario 2:

Adam’s friends and family – and even his counsellor  –  don’t know how to handle the news of his diagnosis. The way they react reveals their own fears and insecurities and does little to comfort him.

Rachel, his girlfriend, is in tears, but tries to reassure him that she’s there for him.

She isn’t able to say anything that shows she’s got her attention on how he might be feeling. Is the hug she gives him genuinely for his benefit – or is it for hers?

Scenario 3:

Kyle, his tiresomely jokey best mate, latches onto the 50/50 chance of survival – with a complete disregard for the odds. ‘You’ll be alright, then’ he insists.

It’s an attempt at reassurance – but most probably it’s more a reflection of how scared he is of losing his best mate and how desperately he wants to believe that Adam will survive.

Scenario 4:

Adam’s mother responds indignantly with ‘You waited two days before telling me’ and rushes away from the dinner table into the kitchen.

She seems hurt about the delay in telling her, as well as distraught about Adam’s future.

In this state, she’s unable to offer him any comfort or understanding.

And Adam was at a loss too. He was unable to see things from his mother’s perspective. She was longing for him to reach out to her and to articulate his feelings more.

Scenario 5:

Katherine, his counsellor, assumes that he’s angry (because that’s what her training has led her to expect) and says ‘It’s normal to be angry, in your situation’.

Again, it’s intended as reassurance, but it comes out stiffly because she’s not yet experienced enough to trust herself to be a compassionate human being.

And Adam wants something different: ‘I don’t want to be normal. I want to be special’ he says.

Scenario 6:

Adam’s workmates organise a ‘leaving work’ party for him – but what can they say to him? One guy offers advice. Another says ‘I’ll never forget you’ – as though the cancer would inevitably be fatal. Adam appears bemused.

The reality was even worse. At the actual party put on for him, Will Reiser said ‘People were always giving me lots and lots of advice. They wanted to help…people have so much trouble being in this space of uncertainty and not knowing what the future is and they want to fix it. But it just sort of overwhelms you…’

So there you have six illustrations of well-meaning attempts at relating to Adam. But none of them hit the spot.

Admittedly he didn’t make it easy for people. He hid his feelings and was reluctant to ask for help. ‘I’m fine’ he said, when asked.

So what could people have said or done?

There’s no easy answer. I might hear the words ‘I’m fine’ and just say a gentle ‘Really? Or is it that you’re fed up with people asking?’ And then see what comes back. We might well hear what is uppermost in the other person’s mind at that moment.

As for the party, maybe there could have been an organised round in which people said what they enjoyed about working with Adam. Then individual people might have been able to have a quiet conversatiion with him about their intentions to keep in touch – or whatever else they might think of for the future.


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