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Is It Possible to Have Empathy Without Being Patronizing?

02/08/2013 11:01 am ET | Updated Apr 10, 2013

The heartbreaking, inspiring, impossible story of the former world's fattest man:

He was born in Ipswich and had a childhood marked by two things, he says: the verbal and physical abuse of his father, a military policeman turned security guard; and three years of sexual abuse, starting when he was 6, by a relative in her 20s who lived in the house and shared his bed. He told no one until decades later.

After he left school, Mr. Mason took a job as a postal worker and became engaged to a woman more than 20 years older than him. "I thought it would be for life, but she just turned around one day and said, 'No, I don't want to see you anymore -- goodbye,' " he said.

His father died, and he returned home to care for his arthritic mother, who was in a wheelchair. "I still had all these things going around in my head from my childhood," he said. "Food replaced the love I didn't get from my parents." When he left the Royal Mail in 1986, he said, he weighed 364 pounds.

Then things spun out of control. Mr. Mason tried to eat himself into oblivion. He spent every available penny of his and his mother's social security checks on food. He stopped paying the mortgage. The bank repossessed their house, and the council found them a smaller place to live. All the while, he ate the way a locust eats -- indiscriminately, voraciously, ingesting perhaps 20,000 calories a day. First he could no longer manage the stairs; then he could no longer get out of his room. He stayed in bed, on and off, for most of the last decade.

Most people, I imagine, read this -- the abuse, the loneliness, the sense of helplessness -- and feel sorry for this dude. Everyone deals with personal and family problems in unique, unbeautiful ways. This dude just happens to have chosen a way that profoundly affected his health and quality of life. This story almost invites you to go "Aw, poor guy."

It's harder when you don't know the backstory. If you saw this guy at a restaurant, nearly 1,000 pounds, inhaling fried chicken, French fries, chocolate cake, washing it down with a milkshake, he'd probably make you sick to your stomach. You'd probably comment to a friend, "This guy is disgusting," turn the other way.

We don't realize the extent to which we learn one thing about someone and let it take over our entire opinion of them. You read this article and you know he's fat, but you also know the abuse, the torn relationships, how he's now reversed the spiral, how hard he's trying. When you see a fat person at a restaurant, all you know is how they appear and what they're eating. In both cases, you use the information you have to make a judgement. In that restaurant, you just don't realize how little information you have.

But this is the part where I really suck at this. When I see a significantly overweight person in public, I end up assuming there's a sympathetic backstory, an understandable reason they got this way. Maybe their dad just died and eating is a way to feel comfort. Maybe they have a hormonal imbalance. Or maybe they were just born with a crazy-slow metabolism and they have completely accepted their size and don't feel any need to apologize for it. "Good for them!" I think, feeling kind and wise.

I fundamentally have no information about these people. I don't know their first names, or where they grew up, or who their friends are or how they treat them. If it's dickish to see a fat person at a restaurant and assume "they must be lazy," isn't it dickish to assume the opposite, that they must have an emotional or personal or physical reason for their obesity?

In other words, is kneejerk empathy as patronizing as kneejerk judgement?

It's not just overweight people. I do this all the time, explain away a person's appearance and actions. I try really hard to give people the benefit of the doubt when they snap at their kids in public, cut me off in traffic, refuse to give up their seat to an old person on the train. Maybe they're having a terrible day. Maybe they're hurrying home to take care of their sick mom. Maybe they're just distracted. I'm no better than them, I tell myself, I've done all these things and worse.

Sometimes I think this makes me a left-wing cliche. There's no such thing as bad behavior, only people who need a hug. On a society-wide scale, maybe judgement is better than empathy. If we know we'll get nasty looks from our societal peers, maybe we'll act better. Or at least look better.

Like everyone else, I haven't found a way to make my actions match my beliefs. I lack the information to make any robust conclusions about the world around me, but even knowing that, I lack the ability not to. I wish I could see people and not assume anything at all. But until that happens, I should be sure about what I know before I decide what I think.

For more by Michael Hobbes, click here.

For more on emotional intelligence, click here.

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