Dangerous Compassions

empathy disability

view from bed

Hello, reader.  How are you today?  I’ve been thinking about empathy disability.

I keep blogging about that disability justice fat liberation skillshare I led for my community, here in Kalapuya land.  The skillshare meant a lot to me and stirred up big thoughts and feelings.  I was so vulnerable to people I know so newly.

In a way that’s ideal timing–get the truth on the table right away.   Yes, if they know disability justice fat liberation values, they can see me and Ming accurately.  There’s a better chance of mutual respect.

Definitely our housemates are respectful people.  But you don’t know what you don’t know.  More info on concepts that might be new is helpful.  More info can lead to effective respect.  Then our housemates might get along with me and Ming in ways we actually need.  Maybe Ming and I can sacrifice less.

power and values

Last community that Ming and I lived in long term, bad habits were established right away.  I showed up starry-eyed, ready to do God’s work.  That starry-eyed-ness means I compromised a lot.

Only a small part of me felt understood and wanted there.  I was expressing only about 30% of myself.  I didn’t know until we left how I kept myself as small as possible, to avoid harsh judgment and criticism.

Being that misunderstood and unwanted–wow, how could I live that way?  It’s hard to comprehend how I endured that for years.  My queerness, disabilities, religion and spiritual practices, relationship styles, artist styles, worldviews, and many of my values were ignored as nonexistent or else harshed on.

I tiptoed around the values of the people who had power.  Misogynist bullshit like “women are drama” and women should cover up our bodies really fucked with me.

I did my best to enjoy the good while letting go of the bad.  But it was too much work.  There was the actual work we were signed up for, but on top of that, the huge work of contorting ourselves in order to avoid harm for our differences.

disability is about power

Disability is about power–at least that’s part of it.  Powerful people have decided whose needs matter and will be met, and whose needs are too much so will be unmet.  That happens in cultures, families, relationships, communities.  I see it all around.

During the skillshare, my elder community member friend brought up empathy disability.  He said how my project is love.  I feel grateful that he recognizes my project.  Most people don’t.

He went on to say that the world has many people who can’t empathize.  He asserted that there’s an empathy disability.

It was a new idea to me, and I’m not sure I understand what he meant.  He thinks I’m at an advantage, to feel empathy, and the people who can’t or are not very good at empathy are disabled.

love is a skill

I brought up the idea that empathy isn’t a way to succeed in the culture we live in.  Lack of empathy actually helps people succeed–I mentioned bosses at paid work jobs.  Every boss I ever had lacked empathy.  Their brutality ensured that we got work stuff done; their lack of love was a desirable feature for furthering capitalism and business as usual.  They were in charge and making more money than any of us.

My empathy is a gift, but it’s also a skill I’ve worked to cultivate.  I was born empathetic–that’s true.  But all of love is a skill.  I’ve thought a lot about love, choose to love, and hone it.  A better world is possible, and love is the main way to create it.


Does empathy give me more power or less power?  Nurturing others earns me a thank you in friendships and community now and then.  But mostly it’s invisible or taken for granted.

Out in the world, my empathy means I’m seen as weak, and I’m dismissed as sentimental and unreliable.  Emotions are associated with lack of logic and lack of intelligence.  This is misogyny also.  Empathy is associated with women and is part of what we’re expected to do as a matter of course, part of our rent for being on earth.

I’m pigeon-holed as a feeler, and our culture distrusts feelings.  This dismissal affects how I’m treated on a daily basis and how my projects are treated.  I’m irrelevant-ized in most spaces.  My fat body and disabilities contribute to that, until I’m mostly erased.


I won’t take empathy for granted.  I try for reciprocity of emotional care, and I value Ming and our friends who know how to love.  In meetings I bring up emotional labor as actual work we do.  I write love notes saying thank you to the people who help me feel safe.

Culture didn’t teach me how to openly, deeply value people who are meaningfully empathetic.  So I’ll find my paths and let you know what I come up with.

By Laura-Marie

Good at listening to the noise until it makes sense.

3 replies on “empathy disability”

Thank you for another great insight-through-intimacy post, Laura-Marie. It raises the grain on important dimensions of life. You cover some of them beautifully. I offer here some others….

I see many modes of power

So, while I totally agree that the disability/ability dynamic definitely has a power dimension, I believe that dimension includes more than just power-over (i.e., the power to control, dominate, destroy, etc.).

In particular, I see a more generic a more generic form of power at work – power-TO – the power to be, to do, to enjoy, to change, to have, etc. (not only to have material things, but to have pleasure, meaning, peace, joy, etc.).

Disability can interfere with power-to. However, in certain contexts and under certain conditions and states of consciousness, it can actually enhance that power-to, at which point we could say it becomes or feeds an actual ability.

All this applies, of course, to privilege and oppression, since they are intimately tied to power.

The ability to empathize can be supported, developed or undermined socially and/or psychologically. I think that those who happen to have inner capacities or outer contexts that support (or have supported) empathic feelings and behaviors (and/or development) are privileged in comparison to those whose inner capacities and/or outer contexts undermine empathy, reducing quality of life for self, others, community.

Of course, there is work to be done salvaging or increasing empathic capacities in self, others, and community. But people who already have those capacities (through grace, discipline or developmental work) are more able to serve in that role and often feel called to that work. Or they may sense the presence of empathy-degrading dynamics and choose to leave, which is also a form of privilege.

I see more clearly now that privilege is often more about choice than about power, to a large extent (although power of all kinds tends to expand one’s choices).

But there’s the observation you raise that “Lack of empathy actually helps people succeed”. At one level, I totally see that, of course. On another level, though, that kind of success can constitute a degradation of being, of spirit, of aliveness. So it raises a big question of what life is all about…

There’s so much going on in these words – disability, power, privilege, success….!!! They’ve got whole worldviews tangled up in them, worldviews that can be very different from each other! It’s a very juicy realm of inquiry to explore in. I appreciate your fellow explorations….


dear Tom, thank you for your thoughts. yes, I like what you say about how there’s a power-over dimension, and also a power-to. you sort that out so nicely.

yes, I have experienced as a person with multiple mental illness diagnoses being seen by psychiatrists who I felt much happier, alive, and equipped to live in the world, than. so yes, I hear voices and have intense moods, but I also know how to deeply feel pleasure and connect authentically, and I have extreme skills with how to care for myself to the point that I might be crazy, but I’m also wildly resilient. so it’s ironic and funny, the psychiatrist is prescribing me pills to quiet voices or stabilize moods on some assumptions that I need help with these things, but actually I know how to live and can see possibilities that seem closed off to the doctor.

I like your distinction between choice and power. I will ponder that.

yes, I meant “succeed” like a conventional money definition. my personal definition of success is not about money at all.

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