Although most of us rarely admit, the sentence, “I understand”, is the last sentence we want to hear. When on the receiving end of an “I understand” we fight to refrain from rolling our eyes and snapping “no you don’t”. But isn’t that what we’re thinking?
Because empathy can only travel so far and even empathy does not equate to understanding–fully comprehending.
But very few will publicly turn our nose up in contempt, because this phrase serves as an empathetic apology. And it’s only fair to accept an apology, right? To accept someone’s empathy? But perhaps even the most gifted empaths may not be able to fully empathize with any of us to the extent of feeling our exact emotions, to their fullest intensity. And maybe it can be argued that true empaths will be greatly affected by those around them, regardless of knowing the root causes for these emotions.
When I tell someone “I understand”, “I get it”, “I know”, the truth is: I don’t. And how could I? How could I possibly understand what this person is going through if I haven’t experienced it myself? For instance, when people speak about missing their sibling(s) and the relationship they have with them, it’s hard for me to wrap my head around completely, because I am an only child. While I can comprehend that these are strong emotions being felt, I would not be able to describe these emotions, myself or fully understand the tight bond many have with their sibling(s).
Approaching my white friends to complain, vent, and otherwise share my interactions with racial micro/macroaggressions, white supremacists, prejudice, discrimination, and the attack on the black community, is a lost cause. It may feel great to get off my chest, to vocalize my feelings to anyone who is around and willing to listen, to help educate those that have centuries of oppressive behavior to unlearn, but there is no end game. Becky’s experience of watching a pickup truck full of frat boys wave around confederate flags, does not equate to my experience of watching the same incident unfold. Because Becky’s discomfort and disappoint does not equate to my pain, my rage, my detachment, my numbness that has been felt by my family and families like mine and people who look like me dating back to the beginning of colonization. My feelings are heavy and go beyond words and can only be described in wavelengths of experience, baggage, and history.
How we experience the world is very far from the same. Beyond blackness and whiteness, we exist on many margins, we are people of intersectional identity. I cannot stress how the existence of intersections within the same body prevent anyone from ever fully understanding anyone else. Where Becky’s ears fail me, I may approach a friend of color who would have a stronger grasp of what I am feeling, but miss the mark. So I approach a black friend of mine who gets it that much more. But if my friend is from the north then there is already a margin of error in empathy. Being raised in even the most diverse south of the United States, there is a tinge of horror and distaste, that if i drive just under 30 miles upward of South Florida, I am reminded of the confederacy. Family vacations driving to Orlando or Tampa, I had tears in my eyes and my stomach turned when I finally recognized that the flag on these houses, wasn’t quite like the one I pledge (read: pledged) my allegiance to.
And furthermore, my experience as trans, queer, mixed, first-gen American, DFAB and my mental health shape not only how I see the world, but how the world sees me. If I speak to my trans friends and queer friends about LGBTQ+ issues and situations, there is a reality that while they may understand -in their own body and life- what it feels like and means to be queer, the factor of race immediately separates us. From the development and deviance of feminism to black feminism and the emergence of queer theory. To how I cannot choose which part of my marginalized identity I get to showcase on a given day, I have to remind myself that my friends and peers do not and will not understand what it means to be black, trans, queer, first-gen, mixed, DFAB, depressed, […] from the south, attending a PWI. And I will never understand those with physical and mental disabilities that differ from my own, those with a different socioeconomic status, those living in another country(US), immigrants, people with politicized religions, the list is infinite.
But all these factors that prevent us from fully understanding what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes make us beautiful and unique from each other. Which not only makes us us, but forces us to look outside ourselves and respect that we lead separate lives. These differences are to be celebrated, recognized as factual, and OK.
It is important to keep in mind that when we are comforting one another, our goal is not to participate in the Struggle Olympics–to feed into similar experiences we have faced and how we have overcome. Or how we -or others- have had it much “worse”. Problems, experienced, hardships, trauma, and feelings cannot be objectified, as there are the purest form of independent subjectivity.
“What can I do”, “do you want to be alone”, are some substitutes for the theoretical understanding and empathy. Bringing comfort food, providing an ear, or a shoulder. While it may not seem like much, often times it is the best that we can do. And we must accept that. And our friends and peers must accept that.
We each need to heal. On our own time, and our own terms.