Why it helps to know what it's like, and the exquisite beauty of empathy

These days, the wood patio area just outside my kitchen door is a riot of activity. From near my wood pile to the gazebo, there are water features, suet offerings, a bird bath, perhaps six or seven different bird feeders.

The more birds that have shown up, the more showy the show. They fight over access. Some prefer different ledges. The hummingbirds turned up their tiny beaks at the expensive feeders, which sit forlorn, full, on the pebbled paved part of my patio.

Photo by Zuzanna J / Unsplash

Which is fine. There are so many blooms in my yard all year, they'll be back.

I've finally found squirrel-resistant, not -proof, feeders, which are popular with small birds. I also found out that if you coat birdseed with hot sauce, most squirrels will back right off. Not all. Apparently some have a little South of Border preferences, and can  handle the heat. Not all, which means that most of the time, the birds get the pricey suet.

Today, a new squirrel showed up. After watching him carefully, I realized he had a left paw down. I can relate to that right now. I've got really bad arthritis in the CMC joint at the base of my left thumb. The cortisone shot wore off and it's taken a very long time to see a local doctor. It's going to be weeks before I get another shot. Meanwhile the bone-on-bone pain is agony, so suffice it to say, Mr. Fluffy tail and I are in much the same shape.

Except his is clearly permanent.

Can't say whether this adult got hurt from a fall, a hawk dropped him from the baby's nest. The left arm doesn't work at all. Still, he's nimble, but limited. His territorial instincts are powerful; other squirrels didn't dare approach while he scanned the area for likely comestibles.

There's a lot of seed on the ground but it's all saucy. So I filled a bowl with unseasoned bird seed and left it out.

Seconds later he was munching. He ate the Whole Damned Bowl.

As I watched him, he used the wrist part of his left arm to balance his food. I'm doing precisely the same thing, my opposing thumb far too painful to use. He spilled a lot, and that which fell on the wood was too hard for him to pick up. So he scooped with his face and his right paw from the bowl, eyes closed, perhaps in the sheer pleasure of having plenty to eat. Plenty.

Made me think. Why did I put food out just for him (or her, the squirrel didn't offer me that personal a view)?

Why bother, when Nature tends to take care of Her own, making injured animals far easier prey for hungry predators who also have kids to feed?

I think all life has a purpose. We might not always see it, but I believe it does.

Many of you might be able to relate to this. This past year, when Medium's income levels dropped, a lot of us found ourselves surviving on fumes and what the state would give us gig workers. I qualified for the smallest amount, and for that, like many in Colorado, I had to scratch and fight. The Colorado Department of Labor and Unemployment (CDLE) got slammed with fraud, billions of it, and when Trump failed to sign the bill to continue our income stream, many of us suffered directly.

Endless hours on hold, people without the training to help, a fouled-up website. It was an unholy mess. I engaged my local representative (I still have a business office in Denver) and they went to work.

At one point I reached a young woman, who, unlike all the people before her, said, "I am not hanging up on you until we get your problem solved."

There was something in her voice so real, so sincere, that I knew she meant it. Talk about a lifeline.

Let's call her Maria. She was a young Hispanic woman, perhaps mid-twenties. As we sat on hold together, I asked her questions. Here's what I learned. Maria had lost her restaurant job, and as a result, her ability to pay for child care for her toddler, whose playing I could hear in the background. Unable to pay rent, she had to move in with her grandparents. She was desperate for money to pay for her food, to help her family out, and to pay for gas.

She was precisely the kind of person the unemployment was supposed to help. She battled CDLE just like everyone else had. Eventually, she got a job as a customer service rep for CDLE, serving people just like she had been.

Maria understood intimately what I was going through, the hours and hours and HOURS we spent on hold, only to reach someone who didn't have the skills  to help, and be told someone would call, who never would. We got emails telling us we owed the state what we'd been paid, money we didn't have. She'd had it happen, too. She knew. First hand.

And there was no way in hell she was going to let anyone who ended up in her hands slip through the cracks. She'd been there. As I listened to her baby burble happily in the background, I thought about how immensely calming it was to speak to someone who knew. Who had empathy. And with that empathy, Maria knew what to say, and how to say it, so that I wouldn't end up even more angry and frustrated than before.

Ultimately we got things sorted out, I received back pay, got bills paid, and all was well.

Here's the piece. You can see it coming.

As a disabled veteran, you can understand why, in most cases, those vets who came back damaged from the war, and who ended up running for office (my favorite is Senator Tammy Duckworth) have a very different understanding of war. What it costs, the damage people bring home, and the cost to our families. Those who have never been to battle LOVE to march around like little toy soldiers, brandishing guns they don't have the sense to keep safe from their kids, thinking war is such a fine thing. People like Duckworth, and veterans like her on both sides of the aisle, know. They have empathy. It's not some big side show. It's a shit show. And they care about those of us who paid the price to serve.

In the same vein, I have felt, not without cause, that those counselors who have been through addiction, or alcoholism, or terrible life circumstances have a great deal more empathy for and patience with those still struggling. They know the internal language. The negotiations. Without this immediate and intimate experience, I think that something is lost. Not always but it sure helps. In the years I struggled with eating disorders, I found counselors without direct experience maddening, judgmental, and contemptible. I had to finally heal myself.

While this isn't that kind of article, you could legitimately argue, with plenty of cause, that the grotesque treatment of the disappearing middle class into poverty, the growth of the homeless ranks and the plight of those working four gig jobs to pay for one shitty apartment is in part because those at the top have no fucking clue.  To that, the numbers don't lie:

Poor people really are more charitable than the rich, according to new research
The London Economic | Poor people really are more charitable than the rich, according to new research | Environment

Having had to couch surf during my thirties, and having struggled to find work for a good long while, the feeling of being vulnerable to life's slightest breezes is very real to me. While we have our fair share of fake homeless panhandlers, I find ways to donate food to food banks, furniture to families who need it, and places to give where there is clearly a benefit.

Because I know how it feels.

Trump's vicious treatment of the disabled reporter early in his presidency wasn't unique to him. It's symptomatic of how too many rich and privileged feel about their right to be rich, and that somehow the poor, the disabled, the disenfranchised choose their conditions, which is precisely why I despise people like Rachel Hollis, who really deserves a nasty case of black fungus. Just saying.

My squirrel visitor didn't choose his busted arm. The doe who visited my home in Denver didn't choose her damaged hind leg. You and I didn't go out and solicit shitty jobs or life circumstances. I didn't choose my disabilities. Those conditions have chosen me, and in doing so, have also given me the opportunity to grow as a result.

My disabilities have allowed me to choose grace. I see those who who struggle not as a burden to society, but quite often they are amazing stories of resilience. One of my fellow riders at my stable, Lynne, is wheelchair-bound. She has limited use of her arms, she has to be helped onto her donkeys. But she rides. She is out daily, she grooms her babies, and she rides.

She humbles the holy shit out of me.

One of the gifts I regularly gave myself under quarantine was to watch old American's Got Talent and other talent shows' top moments. Some of those folks were deaf, or autistic, or blind, or in some way or another bullied. Each one would belt out a song that blew the roof off the auditorium in that glorious way that untrammeled talent has of being undeniable.

In case you missed it, here is one of my all time faves:

The courage it takes to do such a thing also humbles the holy shit out of me.

Here's another:

These videos give me such joy.

Being disabled, albeit mine are largely invisible, has made me far more thoughtful about others who struggle. As fellow Crow's Feet writer Nancy Peckenham has written several times lately, it wasn't until she worked in a nursing home full of ninety-somethings that she saw aging in a wholly new light. We learn to see strength, talent and competence where others only see frailty, burdens and cost to society.

When we hire, promote, elect people with disabilities, people who have experienced terrible losses, racism and the worst life has to offer, we raise people who have the potential for far more empathy. Not always, mind you, but for my dollar, those folks are far more likely to hear and see and be attentive to the needs and plights of folks left behind. I see more and more transgender politicians, politicans of color, gay leaders in office, which to me means the potential for more acceptance and decency. I choose to hope.

For like Maria, most if not all have been there. Those experiences have often shaped them into the kinds of leaders who listen. This is just as true in the corporate offices. A previous HR manager of mine had lost his legs to polio. He was the first manager who recognized that I struggled horribly with chronic migraines, and fought for my right to work on my own hours. I never missed a deadline, for I was so very grateful for the decency of his treatment. And he got my best work. I think this is true for so many of us who deal with a limitation; we want a shot, and we want to use our talents. Talent is hardly limited to the perfect body, a lesson Simon Cowell finally learned. The package doesn't determine genius, and genius wears many faces.

Which is why I am convinced that autism is its own kind of genius, and we are only beginning to understand the immense possibilities in the different ways our humanity expresses itself.

On the front lines, where so many of us spent hopeless hours on hold waiting for help, people like Maria, who got a shot at a regular income, made all the difference for folks like me who were battered by the system. As I have written elsewhere, on the battlefield, in the hospital, on the help line, the color of a person's skin matters nowhere near enough as the empathy and kindness they can offer, because they understand our pain.

They see us, and we matter, for they know what it's like to not matter.

A society that punishes, demonizes and ridicules the frail, the helpless,the disabled, the elderly is beyond redeeming. For my part, the gift of my disabilities, such as they are, has helped me far better appreciate where someone's perceived "limitations" are rather their greatest strengths. Ask any loving parent of a Down's Syndrome child. Not without challenges, to be sure.

But always and forever with unbelievable rewards.

Moment of laughter
Photo by Nathan Anderson / Unsplash

Someday I may be frail. I have no idea. The last thing I want is to be cared for by angry, able-bodied, irritated, bored folks who have better things to do than help me negotiate a stairway. We all get our turns, if we're lucky. One hopes that the karma we create by being mindful, demonstrating empathy and generosity of spirit earns us a little comfort later in life.

That comfort is likely to come from those who have themselves been uncomfortable.

So I am stashing a supply of un-sauced birdseed for my single-pawed squirrel. I figure he deserves a break every so often.

As do we all.