I read an article this morning about a Canadian couple who took a vacation in Hawaii. She was six months pregnant. At four months, she’d had a bladder infection that resulted in a “bit” of bleeding. Two months later, however, her doctor cleared her to travel to Hawaii, having determined that her pregnancy was stable.  Still, the couple bought a travel health insurance policy to cover them while in the U.S., which does not have universal healthcare, like Canada does.

Unfortunately, while they were in Hawaii, she went into labor. Their daughter was born prematurely at a Hawaiian hospital, and required a lengthy stay in the neonatal intensive care unit. At last count, their medical bills were a tick under one million dollars, and the insurance company declined them because of a “pre-existing condition” – that prior bladder infection. They are now being asked to pay almost $950,000 out of pocket, and are facing bankruptcy.

My reaction to this was to wince in horror and feel sympathy – and also, to renew my concerns about our health care system, but that’s not the point of this post. Reasonable minds disagree about that. What bothered me the most was when I read the comments and discovered how uniformly harsh Americans were in their responses to this couple. Comment after comment derided their supposed stupidity in “traveling without insurance”, or “not reading the fine print” of their insurance policy, or, when faced with the fact that neither of those were accurate, just proclaiming that they were stupid to travel at all during a pregnancy, regardless of whether her doctor had cleared her to do so.

What is wrong with us? Why is it that so few people were able to express any dismay at this couple’s situation? It seemed, as I was reading through these comments, that there was no amount of blamelessness that would have satisfied these folks. Despite the fact that any one of them could end up in a similar situation, there was not only a disturbing lack of empathy for this couple, there was a deep vein of contempt.

I understand that victim-blaming serves an internal security purpose – after all, if we can pinpoint what people did to bring calamity onto themselves, we can imagine that we would not make the same mistakes, and are therefore exempt from disaster ourselves. This is, of course, an illusion; what I really wanted to ask these people is whether they really, really think that the crime of traveling during pregnancy is really such a terrible error in judgment that it deserves a million dollar penalty. Is that the society we want to live in? Precisely how cautious must we be in our everyday lives to deserve empathy? It seems to me like a hard, brittle worldview around which to build a culture.

Unfortunately, I see it more and more in our country. I don’t wish to turn this into a left and right dichotomy, because I’m weary of that, and tribal thinking never goes anywhere but in circles. And anyway, I believe there’s room on each side of the political spectrum for empathy. Instead, I would ask this: when you are reading about a situation such as this and you feel a sense of righteous judgment rising in your throat, where is the harm in setting that urge aside and trying to see things from their point of view first? And after that, we might consider what margin of error we want to allow in our society, and whether that margin is applied equally to everyone.

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5 thoughts on “The endangered species of empathy

  1. I had a similar experience yesterday. The story was about a six-year-old child at a local school who had been callously (almost gleefully) denied lunch by a cafeteria lady because his account had fallen too low–this despite the fact that the school had a back-up policy in place so a child would never go hungry while adults hash out finances. And despite the fact that the family qualified for assistance, meaning the account had no negative balance, per se, because the child’s meals were covered by the state. The boy’s parents were furious that the school hadn’t followed it’s own policies and that their son had been treated badly.

    Although you’d hope we could all muster a little empathy for a child–a six-year-old child!–in this situation, you can imagine the comments. All, to a one, aimed at the parents. Deadbeats. Irresponsible. Ungrateful. This list went on and on. Like you, my thought was, if we can’t muster a little sympathy in this situation, when, where will we ever be able to?

    The longer this goes on the less I am inclined to blame the uglier side of human nature (and the internet’s tendency to spin it to the top like some sort of hostility centrifuge) and the more I think fomenting this sort of discontent and vitriol is an actual political strategy to divert attention from solutions–ones that might serve the very people who spit the most venom. You really don’t have to worry about a majority uniting over a moral minimum wage (as just one example) when you can keep them thinking of prenatal care or even feeding school children as being suitable subjects for political debate.

  2. I always wonder if those same people, plopped down in a room together without the blinders and camouflage of social media, would say the same things. We’ve become a society of banner wavers, so long as we can do our waving from the safety of our computers, and no longer have to worry that our comments for, or against, will cause knotted brows or gasps of shock.
    Frankly, the idea that an insurance company can take as much of your money as they deem required and still refuse you at all (which I’m fairly certain wasn’t the original purpose to having insurance way back when we stopped asking the neighborhood Godfather to help us) makes me ill. The idea that all that money goes to anyone or anything else when it is earmarked to help the person paying it is absurd.

    1. I agree. There’s a discussion on my blog’s facebook page where I mentioned that I do think that the online nature of things really does contribute to the empathy gap. But we are seeing it more and more in the “real” world, and I want to try to get into the shoes of these people and see where this comes from. Are we all so squeezed these days that feeling solidarity is that much harder? What are we protecting with the “judge first” mentality? I don’t know.

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