Empathy and compassion

Mario Venegas, torturado de Chile, Martin Sheen y George Martin SOAW 2011Yesterday I went to bring papers to the widow I have been helping.  After twenty-nine years of marriage to an abusive husband, a marriage in which she stayed in obedience to her marriage vows, as she is a fervent Catholic, and “marriage is forever,” she is being evicted by his stepchildren.  She will be eighty-three years old in two months, and she has become my mother and my friend… although in many ways I mother her, despite the difference in our ages.

She is still a beautiful woman, and does not look her age; in fact, when I met her in January of 2015, right after the death of her husband, I wrote down in my notes for the clinic that I had met a woman in her late sixties, possibly 70.  But yesterday as she was struggling to sign yet more papers, she broke down and said she wanted to die, crying bitterly.  She began to look her age as the tears coursed down her cheeks…

I called out to her only son and to a woman from her local Catholic church who has been helping to clean the house, give away cherished possessions, pack… I asked us to pray together, holding hands in a circle of love, using the best prayer I know, taught to us centuries ago by the man called Jesus, the subversive Jew I love and follow.  While we prayed in a circle loudly, she began to ask God for forgiveness, heartrendingly, in between gulping sobs…  She is mired in the lies of the atonement theology she has been taught, as a loving father/mother God would not fault her for her despair.

She was born in a very poor place in Mexico, and has suffered the plights of women everywhere, including rape as a young girl while she was unconscious from pneumonia… She never went to school, and she learned to read and write on her own after the age of 17, because she wanted to read her prayers… In the US she cleaned other people’s toilets to survive, and she learned to sew and make her own clothing.  Most of the money she earned went to support her family and siblings back home in Mexico… She deserves happiness as each one of God’s creatures deserves it, perhaps more than most…

Growing up her family’s poverty was so severe that as a young woman with her only son, her milk dried, because there was never enough to eat.  She has been quick to tell me again and again that God has always showered her with miracles; again and again she has found “angels” in her way, to help her.  For months now she has been claiming I am one of them, although I feel I am too angry to be an angel of any kind… More on that later…

When she first came I was still struggling with the attitudes of my late husband’s children during the period of his last illness and death, during his memorial service… so it was difficult to listen and to act, but it helped me to realize that these things happen to other people.  I too grew up in an abusive home, with childhood sexual abuse and other trimmings, and I too have grown up with the scars of these events, which morph into what is now cataloged as post-traumatic stress.  I too have struggled with the scars of exile, with the difficulties of growing up latina in an Anglo world, of feeling tolerated, but never fully accepted in most circles.  “We are in America, speak English!”

At heart, when we are tortured, despite therapy and understanding, we feel always alone in our pain, and because that young child was abused when it could not take of itself, and sometimes had no champion, we feel that we somehow deserved that abuse, whatever it was.  Abused children cannot blame their parents, because parents are in the place of God for a young child.  This is a terrible recipe for anger and rage.  The men in our culture, demeaned by the surrounding white privilege, yet having been taught that men are to be strong and wise and hardworking and to take care of their families, come home with the secret knowledge that they are not valued in the society at large, and eventually the dam bursts and they will take it out on those nearest and dearest.  Abuse in our communities is rampant… against the very women and children our men have been told to protect.

I have spent the last two weeks with this family of mother and son, helping with chores and with errands such as closing bank accounts, obtaining medical records… I will be doing her income taxes for this year, will be changing her address, and will be going back to probate court.  I will be filing in her behalf, a ten-page petition to dismiss her husband’s trust, which he amended to leave her completely out of his estate, despite twenty-nine years of faithful marriage and service… Because we have community property in this state, half of anything that came into the house during the marriage is hers by right.  But his children removed even household items that she had purchased, such as vacuum cleaners and pots and pans, the two cars that he drove… In fact during an accident in which she was rear-ended, she was without a car for two months.  Some of these sons are good men, I am sure, but they are following the “last intent” or testament of their father.  And it is in their financial interest to do so.

In another hour and a half I will be presenting another workshop for immigrants at the Day Labor Center, so people can take steps to protect their families in the event of continuing raids by the Homeland Security agency with the appropriate moniker of ICE.  I attempt to be calm and instructive during these workshops, but typically I get angrier and angrier about US policy at home and abroad, and I wind up doing a more fiery presentation than I would have liked to; we have always had very poor immigration policies.  We excluded the Chinese who came to build our railroads and worked on our mines for sixty years under the Chinese Exclusion Act.  We refused to take Jews escaping the Holocaust, including the family of Anne Frank.  We decimated the indigenous populations in our midst, giving the original settlers of this land US citizenship only in the 20th century.  And let us not even begin to talk about the plight of Black men and women whose ancestors were enslaved and tortured…

I have discovered, through all of these desperate cases that come to our free clinic, that I want to practice law again.  Perhaps my righteous anger can be put to good use… But I now believe I am an empath, and I cannot distance myself from those I help.  I never could… so I join in their tears and feel their anguish in my very core.  This has happened when I interpret for victims of torture, and it happens every time I relive with a person looking for help whatever circumstances they share.  And I seem to have forgotten how to do the “love your neighbor as thyself.”  Yesterday my legs were so swollen that I was having difficulty walking.  I had been working on documents at my computer, without sleep or food, for a day and a half…

How do we learn self-care?  It is a problem for many of us  who work in caring for others. It was a problem for my husband Jim… We seem to be tireless for others, but to forget our own needs.  Possibly it is a way to cope with our own endless pain, a form of addiction, maybe, a way to send the ghosts packing for yet another night.  In the meantime, we are silent, walking wounds… and we embrace all other walking wounded in our midst.  And we sing, and we harbor each other…




This entry was posted in aging, exhaustion, immigrants' rights, justice, moral protest and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Empathy and compassion

  1. Sigh, I am in tears. How heartless can they be?

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