Achieving Empathy

It is often recommended that we imagine ourselves in someone else’s place, and try to see life from his angle. It’s an excellent moral exercise, and one that ought to help us be better Christians. I have heard it especially recommended in the case of the disabled. Try and imagine what it would be like to do without one of your limbs. ‘Well’, you might say, ‘I wouldn’t like it, but I suppose I could manage’.

No, you couldn’t.

Imagination is not enough. It takes a practical demonstration. I have discovered a simple method of organising this. It goes as follows:

  1. Go to your local animal shelter and adopt a feral cat.

  2. After the cat has crouched snarling in a corner of the guest bedroom for several days, try to pick it up and put it in a basket.

 

Done that? Good. Now the cat is once more crouched in the corner, hissing like an over-filled kettle, and you have, let’s count, six, no, seven scratch marks on your left hand and four puncture wounds on your right wrist. One of the teeth has gone through to the bone, and probably – if, like me, you have a bit of osteoporosis – somewhat into the bone, and the opposing one has pierced the tendon which works your thumb. There is blood everywhere, and some on the cat, which you sincerely hope will not like the taste.

Hurts, doesn’t it?  Never mind, the A&E department will clean it up and give you a tetanus shot and some antibiotics, and if you have a nice doctor he’ll supply a little bottle of morphine; but be warned. There is only one position in which your wrist will not give you the worst pain you have felt in your life, and you will keep it in that position, except for screaming moments of relaxed concentration, for the next week. Now, if you are prepared to see every experience as an opportunity, is your big chance to find out what it’s like to be disabled.

Some of this is obvious.

Dressing and undressing is a long and painful business, so you’ll probably let your wife undress you down to your shirt and keep that on for the next 24 hours and never mind the bloodstains. When she finally makes you change into pyjamas, you’ll insist on doing it alone, and it will take for ever.

You can’t write. You can try with your left hand, but it won’t be a success. I like to do a couple of crosswords every day, and my solutions are harder to decipher than the clues. Typing is easier as long as you don’t bother with frills like capital letters.

You see, it’s not the things that your right hand is good at and your left hand isn’t, that cause the most trouble. It’s the things that need two hands. The first time I had to change my own dressing, it took me half an hour to unzip the first-aid kit. And eating is a messy nightmare. You can’t cut anything up. I was left alone the other day with a bowl of tinned peach halves. Have you ever tried to cut up a tinned peach with just a spoon in your left hand? It’s not helped by the absolute terror caused by realising that if you splash any more juice you’ll have to change your pyjamas.

And personal hygiene. I tell my family to stay to the right of me, because there is simply no way I can get deodorant into my left armpit. Bet you never thought of that one.

Try – if you have plenty of time to spare and an easily-cleaned worktop – to make a jam sandwich. One little tip: give the butter 15 seconds in the microwave first. Then, hoping that the bread packet is already open, take out a slice and wedge one edge carefully under the breadboard. Take the butter knife in your left hand, pick up a gob of butter and do your best to spread it. If the bread tears, throw it away, get another slice and toast it. For the jam, I recommend a spoon; but you will probably have to do without jam the first time, because you can’t open the jar.

Of course, you have a loving family to rally round and do all these things for you; but imagine if you were really disabled and on your own. Your whole life would be different. Before doing any little job, you have to work out strategies in advance. And remember that child-proof medicine bottles are also patient-proof; they never thought of that, did they, the clever people who came up with the idea? Imagine being in dreadful pain and faced with a bottle of morphine that has to be held firmly with one hand, while pushing down and twisting with the other; and only having the one hand to open it with.

What? Oh, you open a door wide. Put the bottle top in the crack by the hinges, pull on the door with your foot until it grips the cap, then push and turn with your good hand. Skill at playing Twister is useful in this exercise. Also skill at mopping up sticky medicine.

So I’ve spent the past few days working out strategies before doing anything. That in itself is a salutary lesson; if I’d worked out a strategy before picking the cat up, probably involving gauntlets, armour and a backup team with nets, I wouldn’t have got into this pickle in the first place.

HGB, 2017

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