I wrote recently about my recent hospitalization for complications following prostate surgery. I mentioned the other patient in my room, but I didn’t say anything about our interactions. I think that’s a story worth telling.

I’ll call my roommate Dwayne. He is a 55-year-old who was transferred in for treatment of pneumonia in the wee hours of Sunday morning, a few hours after I was admitted. His wife stayed with him for several hours, but then left, and no one came to visit him during the next couple days that we shared the room. The room was “semi-private,” meaning  that there was very little privacy in evidence, so I learned a fair amount about him. At every shift change, the departing nurse came in with the arriving nurse to give the next shift an update on each patient–their diagnoses, reason for admission, and treatment plan. Usually the report is given in the patient’s room, so he overheard my report again and again, and I overheard his.

Dwayne’s pneumonia may have been his immediate problem, but it was by no means his only medical condition. He had diabetes, liver disease, and kidney disease. Wow! My problems were minor in comparison. I heard the diagnosis “end stage renal disease” repeated over and over. I had had a scare when first admitted regarding my kidneys, but by Monday morning I had been assured they were fine. He would never receive that assurance.

I felt sorry for Dwayne, but was also rather annoyed by him. He watched TV constantly, and I had little appreciation for his tastes–Wrestlemania, shoot-em-up action shows, lots of drooling over customized cars and trucks. The first night he talked on the phone at midnight, while I was trying to sleep, then watched TV for another couple hours, not bothering to keep the sound down. His phone then started ringing at 6 the next morning. There was a curtain separating us, but he certainly knew I was there and presumably could infer I would appreciate some quiet.

I probably should have asked him to turn down the sound, but I was in quite a bit of pain initially and thought that it, not he, was the main factor keeping me awake. Lying in bed that night, I started wondering about him, and my thoughts weren’t very charitable. What had been his role in causing all his medical problems? Lifestyle choices do affect our health, after all. He didn’t seem to be trying to get up and walk around despite the nurse’s statement that it would help with his pneumonia. Was that behavior typical for him; had he been neglecting his health for years?

I was prepared to ask him to turn his TV down the next night, but didn’t need to. I had a medical procedure late that night, and wasn’t ready to go to bed myself until near 2 the next morning. He had spent the previous afternoon at kidney dialysis. I started thinking about what his life must be like. How did it affect someone to have their blood cleaned by a machine every few days? I had overheard that he wasn’t able to work. Did he miss that? Where was he spiritually? Did he turn to God when things got difficult?

Tuesday morning, my doctor’s PA mentioned that she would come by that afternoon to discuss discharging me. I had only spoken briefly to Dwayne in the previous couple days. I had been too preoccupied with my own troubles to want to converse with him. Still, while waiting that afternoon for the PA’s visit, I started wondering whether I had been too uncommunicative. Jesus told his followers to let their light shine. Here was someone whose life seemed full of darkness, and I couldn’t think of anything I had said or did that he could have interpreted as light.

Finally, late in the afternoon, I realized that I would regret it if I didn’t at least try to have more of a conversation with him. His TV show was just ending, so I made a comment about it, then asked him about the dialysis. He was like a damned up river suddenly released, gushing forth the story of his last few years. A doctor had prescribed too much medication for his diabetes, and he had felt worse and worse. After about a year like this, he was admitted to the hospital; doctors were shocked with the meds he was on. His diabetes could have been managed with minimal medication, but the extra medication had irreparably damaged his kidneys. He had talked to a lawyer, but a malpractice case probably wouldn’t prevail in court. He wasn’t able to work because of dialysis three days a week. He tried to find part time work the other two days, but no one would hire him when they learned of his condition. His wife had to work so they could keep medical insurance. He had “lots of toys” at home, but didn’t get much satisfaction anymore from going out riding his motorcycle, ATV, and the like. His doctors said he was a poor candidate for a kidney transplant because of his other medical problems. He got down at times and thought of giving up. He wouldn’t do anything to himself but knew that he could stop dialysis and soon be dead. He had a granddaughter, and thinking of her helped him keep going

I asked whether he had a church family; he didn’t, but sometimes went to his daughter’s church. I asked if I could pray with him, and he readily agreed. After we prayed, I gave him my phone number and encouraged him to call me if he needed to talk.

About then, the PA came in, saying she would have been in earlier to discharge me but she had a rough afternoon. I didn’t give her my explanation for why she was delayed. God had been prompting me to lift the bushel of self-preoccupation off my head and shine into the darkness of that hospital room. Knowing how slow I am to realize that the Spirit is urging me to do something, He made sure He gave me plenty time to hear and respond. I don’t know if Dwayne will ever call, or if he has thought since then about our talk. At the time, though, we seemed to connect well. Hopefully, I won’t be so slow to reach out to the next Dwayne that crosses my path.

 

 

 

 

 

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I’ve been thinking some about empathy recently. I read an article written a few years ago by Paul Bloom arguing that empathy is an inadequate guide for morality.  I also ran across an Atlantic article by Coner Friedersdorf about barriers to empathy in an age of social media. Finally, in reading the Passion account during Holy week, I was reminded of Jesus’ empathic response upon entering Jerusalem. This post will focus on the first of these sources, Paul Bloom’s account of the limitations of empathy.

Bloom, a professor of psychology at Yale, describes empathy as being “parochial, narrow-minded, and innumerate.” In other words, we are more likely to respond empathically to those like us, we ignore most instances of suffering, and our empathic responses aren’t proportionate to the number of victims. Bloom notes that empathy is easily evoked by the presence of an identifiable sufferer–Baby Jessica, for instance, or Natalee Holloway–but is less likely to occur if there is no tear-stained or otherwise troubled victim. If empathy is our only way of determining what problems we care about, the absence of such a sufferer may leave us indifferent to important issues. Will Californians care about the water crisis if no one is actually thirsty, for example? Will we address climate change when the victims are mostly those who haven’t been born yet?

Bloom acknowledges that experiencing some small measure of empathy does motivate us to help others. He thinks we have enough empathy for this purpose, but are instead lacking in good sense. Thus, tons of toys were sent to Newtown after the school shooting there, even though the town officials had no use for them and asked that no more be sent. Yet children are suffering in countless other ways–hunger, homelessness, abuse, sex trafficking, pollution–and most of us don’t feel moved to help in any way. Rather than increasing empathy, Bloom wants us to increase our deliberation and calculation concerning the needs that surround us.

I wonder, though, whether Bloom isn’t thinking of empathy too narrowly. Primatologist Frans DeWaal, in The Age of Empathy, distinguishes between the basic responses that serve as a foundation for empathy even in primitive mammals (mimicry and emotional contagion) somewhat less basic responses (concern for others and consolation of those in distress), and the advanced capacities that only humans and a few other species are capable of (perspective-taking, helping targeted to the sufferer’s needs). Aren’t the limitations that Bloom describes largely characteristic of empathy shorn of these advanced capacities, that is, without sufficient perspective-taking or properly targeted helping?  The more advanced empathic capacities would for the most part keep us from sending toys where they aren’t needed or rushing to disaster sites unequipped to offer help.

I have not done well recently at providing relief for those in distress (or, as Bloom would have it, at addressing the larger societal issues that are impacting or will impact the quality of life, even if they don’t produce clearly identifiable victims). I did much better when I was a caretaker for my father during his last few years of mental and physical deterioration. Since his death, all I’ve done is make an occasional donation to organizations like World Renew and Christ House. Is my inaction due to lack of empathy? Or am I just not deliberating carefuly about how best to help?

In the past several months, I have in fact deliberated some and have done some planning. I know where the local food bank is, and how to volunteer. I am familiar with a local homeless ministry that would welcome my help. Why haven’t I taken the next step? I’ve told myself it’s because I’m busy. I’m starting to think that it has more to do with insufficient empathy, though. I know there are hungry and homeless people in the community, but I haven’t met any of them personally. When I think of them, my emotional response is less an empathic ‘feeling with’ them in their suffering and more a dull guilt over having pushed them out of my mind.

So, my plan at this point is not to deliberate more about why volunteering would be a good thing. Instead, I’ll regularly bring to mind images of the homeless or hungry and think about what it must be like to be them. Will that produce sufficient empathy to get me to do something for them? We’ll see. I just know that thinking about what I could do hasn’t gotten me anywhere

I recently came across a  description of a research study that found a correlation between engaging in meaningful activities and happiness.  The lead researcher was Michael Steger, a psychologist at the University of Louisville in Kentucky.  He and colleagues had a group of 65 undergraduates complete an online survey that assessed how many times they participated in pleasure-seeking behaviors and how often they participated in meaningful activities, such as helping others, listening to friends’ problems or pursuing life goals.   The survey asked participants how much purpose they felt their lives had each day and whether they felt happy or sad.  Online entries were made every day for a three week period.  

As we might expect, the more the students participated in meaningful activities, the happier they were and the more purpose they felt their lives had.  The meaningful activities listed in the article included both doing good deeds for others and activities that fostered the person’s own goals.  It would be interesting to know whether each was equally associated with happiness ratings.  Perhaps the more interesting finding of the study is that pleasure-seeking behaviors were not correlated with happiness.  I guess that’s bad news for hedonism.  I’m sure the Puritans would be glad.