When news about Jaycee Dugard's memoir, A Stolen Life, hit the internet recently, several commenters expressed their opinion that the kidnap victim had ample opportunities to run away. She was after all, a grown woman when she was found, and she was both bright and healthy. She wasn't shackled or chained. She could have run, at least when she was a teenager. She could have picked up the phone and called 911, or taken her two children and knocked on a neighbor's door. That she failed to do any of those things -- that she didn't take control of her own life in ways others imagine they would have -- seemed to disappoint those who wanted Jaycee to be a different kind of hero. But did they really want it for her, or for themselves?
Unless we are very callous people, we feel empathy when we hear about someone else's trauma or pain. Being human, we're also wired to be self-preserving in the face of tragedy: To consider prevention, alternatives, escape routes or whatever else might save our own skins. Perhaps, then, it's somewhat natural -- although ultimately short-sighted -- to assume that others have the same thoughts, if not the same internal strengths or even external means.
I was reminded of this not just with Jaycee's story, but with my own. For the most part, my book, Elephant Girl: A Human Story, has been warmly received. That was a relief in many ways because there's no part of my life -- from the brutal and ugly to the stupid and suicidal -- that I didn't expose in telling the story. I've shown some of my broken pieces to the public before, but never the whole and never in something as permanent as a book. I worried that readers would reject my book because there's no neatly wrapped up happy ending and I have little of the hero to offer them in myself. I fucked up a lot, made some bad decisions, and had an extraordinarily difficult time navigating the course of my own life. I was and remain absolutely fallible and human.
Recently, a reader sent me a note expressing her disappointment in my lack of self-empowerment and the choices I made as a young woman and mother. It wasn't an unkind note, she was merely expressing her opinion, but for a few moments I felt diminished by her words. There was a time when that feeling might have lasted a week or more, or that I might have felt ashamed for not being the person she wanted me to be.
Over the years, though, in the long, stop-and-go process of healing, I've come to understand that the root cause of that kind of judgment isn't really about the true facts or composition of a situation -- it's almost always another person's sense of idealism. The belief that there had to be, should have been, could have been a better (more expedient, less painful, more fortunate) way to survive -- is, at its core, an idealistic notion.
When mixed with the tenets of self-preservation, idealism offers a sense of self-assurance -- the kind that says "this could never happen to me or someone I love" because (I know better; bad things don't happen to smart/well-prepared people; I'll never put myself in that position; I'll never lose control, etc.,) -- but it also offers the self-preserving idealist hope for others. If only everybody knew what I knew and had the same determination, then tragedies, bad acts and wrong choices would be preventable.
There may be a tiny spark of truth in that hypothesis. After all, we'll never know what might have happened on 9-11 if passengers of the hijacked planes had stood up en masse and decided to fight their captors. We'll never know what might have happened had Jaycee escaped her backyard prison as a teen. Maybe the homeless mother with two kids wouldn't be homeless if she'd chosen her partner more carefully. I'll certainly never know how different my life might have been had I been smarter, stronger, or more resourceful.
Conversely, those who criticize others for not managing their lives well, or doing survival "the right way", will never really know how they (or anyone else) might have been had they been born to different circumstances.
When it comes to survival and recovery, not even the popular saying, "Don't judge a person until you've walked a mile in their shoes" goes far enough. Because it's hardly ever just about one mile and it's only rarely about a singular event. Someone who has been poor for a year will have a different set of experiences than someone who has been homeless for a decade. A child who was loved and nurtured will grow up differently than one who was not. A woman who was mugged will have different feelings than a victim of domestic violence.
To be clear, I don't believe there should ever be a contest in trauma. There should be no place for one-upmanship in recovery, especially. One person's survival story shouldn't be minimized because another person's story is worse or longer in duration, nor should their recovery be brushed-off as "easier" than someone else's. There's no such thing as a compassion pie, with finite slices. Our empathy for anyone else's situation is most often a matter of personal resonance, not limitation.
I believe, in my own idealistic way, that we resonate more when we truly try to understand that each life experience is its own living, breathing entity, with different consequences, potentials, and outcomes. That no matter who we are, what we've been through, or how we've recovered, our experiences are unlikely to be exactly like anyone else's. We don't need a yardstick for measuring someone else's pain, emotions, or choices -- what we need is to throw the yardstick away.
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