Failure of Empathy

“I’m sorry my work is late. I have migraines both days every weekend,” my classmate in an online science class told me when I called to talk to her about our group project. I can’t recall how I replied to her—this happened 15 years ago—but I do remember complaining to my husband after the call. “If she knows she can’t do the work, why is she taking the class? I have constant headaches and I still got my part of the project finished on time.” (That “headache” turned out to be undiagnosed chronic migraine. I had no inkling that it would disable me within two years.)

Are you furious with me for my response? I was for a long time. I still carry some shame about my failure of empathy all these years later. Only a few years after that call, I could see everything wrong with what I said about my classmate. I hope, hope, hope I was compassionate when talking with her, but I’m guessing my frustration was evident.

At the time, I couldn’t fathom any other response to my classmate. It seemed completely illogical for someone to commit to something when they knew they wouldn’t be able to follow through. In other words, I didn’t get it (despite being a person high in empathy). Now I totally get it—she didn’t want to put her life on hold because of migraine and probably hoped she would soon find relief from her weekend-long attacks.

As much as I regret my failure of empathy, this incident gave me valuable insight into one of the many frustrations of living with migraine: how the stigma of migraine influences what other people think about me and my behavior, and the annoying comments they make because of it.

I think of this story often because it reminds me that everyone has a lens through which they see the world. This lens, which is shaped by our personalities and experiences, influences everything we think. It is such an integral part of our lives that we often don’t even realize the lens is there—we think that our view of the world is simply how the world is.

At the time of my class, my lens was of a person who always pushed through pain and always followed through on commitments. I could understand how someone could have such a severe migraine attack that they couldn’t do classwork (my husband has episodic migraine), but not why someone would make a commitment that they may not be able to follow through due to predictable health problems. After chronic migraine derailed my career and life plan, I had a different lens through which my former classmates’ behavior. And her decisions totally made sense.

People often say that you can only understand migraine if you have migraine. The story about my classmate may seem like I agree. I don’t—too many people in my life who don’t have migraine (or any other health condition) have demonstrated endless compassion for me to believe this. But I do believe a sincere, conscious attempt at empathy is required. A person must set down his or her own lens to look through that of another without making judgments about what the other person should or shouldn’t do. That can be incredibly hard to do. I carry the story of my failure of empathy for my fellow classmate to remind me just how difficult it can be. It gives me more empathy for those who do not appear to have empathy for me.

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