In 2020, we became a nation of indirect and aggressive communicators. From social media posts to yard signs, every person had an opinion. And often, those opinions took hold in passive declarations.
We traded social media arguments for intimate connection and conversation. And in those moments of passive anger, we languished. We felt disconnected and hopeless. More sure of ourselves and our own righteousness, but less sure of others. Every person I know thinks they are right and a “good person.” Every person I know also thinks that someone else is to blame for all that is wrong with the world.
I love to read. Some people read for enjoyment, but I read for connection. When someone sits down to write a story, all the pain that is usually hidden under the guise of perfection and fear comes to the surface. Each time I finish a book, it’s not the author’s glory I find relatable, but their pain. Pain is universal. And pain told through story is our humanizing link. The problem is that we’ve been conditioned to believe that our pain deserves reverence and grace while the pain of others is less worthy or even justifiable. In short, we’ve decided some people deserve to be humanized and others do not. And that is where and why we fall apart.
According to research, white people believe that Black people feel less pain. Jason Silverstein studied the racial empathy gap as part of his work with Harvard and found that this gap is unconscious and a root cause of racial disparities. From medical care to the criminal justice system, a lack of empathy is at the core of racism. What is also pervasive is the belief that pain is deserved. If you tell someone you have a friend with lung cancer, the first question is often, “Did they smoke?” It’s easier to believe that cancer is deserved. It’s easier because it lulls us into a false sense of our own security and superiority. If only we follow all the rules, we might be spared from disease and death. If we cling to perfection, we will dodge pain.
I was five years old when I was attacked by dogs. In a matter of minutes, two dogs ripped apart my tiny face. One day I was a normal child, and the next, a dozen doctors and nurses prepped me for what would be the first of over 30 reconstructive surgeries. The world that once smiled at me now asked for their checks and left the restaurant. People stared and whispered. I was a real-life monster before I was old enough to have earned or deserved pain. But even though I was young, I had already been indoctrinated by society. My loving family nurtured and protected me, but I believed it was my fault. I believed I somehow deserved society’s rejection. And so, for many years, I shriveled into shame, disfigured and apologetic. A universal lack of empathy from a society is enough to destroy a child. It’s enough to destroy hospitals, schools, and governments. It’s enough.
Perhaps it’s because I love to read, but I grew up thinking, “if only people knew me.” If only they knew my story. If only they tried to talk to me instead of stare at me. If only they saw me as a child and not a monster. If only they could sit with me in my pain and see themselves in me. If only.
Studies show that a lack of being seen and known leads to declines in physical and mental health. To be excluded and dehumanized by your own society is a fundamental trauma with lasting impacts on the human brain, especially for children. Research shows that trauma before age six can lead to suicide, substance abuse, depression, anxiety, and difficulty in personal and work relationships.
But trauma and pain do have a cure. And that cure is not your social media post or yard sign. It is your own personal ability to empathize and humanize another.
Empathy is sitting with another person. It requires setting aside your own need to be liked, right, or comfortable. When we lose someone we love, those first few months are filled with messages, meals, and flowers. We are given support and grace. But after several short months, that grace period is over and people move on. The world expects and often demands your positive disposition and active reengagement. But anyone who has lost someone knows that pain doesn’t work like that. Loss can’t be turned off after a few months. Pain and trauma flow in waves and though they may soften over time, they never disappear.
Just like the micro pain from personal loss stays forever, so too does macro pain. The pain of racism comes in waves through microaggressions and the denial of history. The loss of a parent doesn’t hurt less because a few months have gone by, just like the racism isn’t cured because we had a Black president. Healing on a micro level is hard and healing on a macro level is harder still. And despite popular opinion, trauma is not healed by money, success, or power. Trauma is mitigated through small and consistent moments of connection. Trauma is cured with love. Being humanized heals.
Children who experience trauma are able to survive and even thrive if they are loved and connected to one adult. Even just one. That’s how powerful we are if we so chose. We have the ability to transform pain like alchemists if we choose to make a connection, listening and humanizing the story of another. If we are willing to sit in pain with another just as we would want someone to do with us.
When I became a deputy town administrator, the local news media ran a story about my appointment. The story outlined my credentials, which included developing and running a nationally recognized innovation team for a major city and earning a master’s degree in public administration from any Ivy League school. The article was posted on social media where I instantly found a barrage of comments that could be summarized as “What happened to her face?” and “Why does she look like that?”
I love public service. I am passionate and qualified and, if you only knew me, you might also find that I am good-hearted, joyful, and thoughtful. You might even say that I am the exact type of person you want to lead in government. But in that moment, I was dehumanized. I was not a person with a story. I was a photo, and my photo was all that was needed to be deemed unworthy. The pain came in a wave, and then it subsided again in the small moments when my husband held my hand and sat with my pain. A macro trauma, a micro healing. My humanity taken away in a passive comment and given back through a personal connection. Given back through love.
As a child, I had an extraordinary pediatric nurse. She always told me that I was the best kid she ever met and that one day the surgeries would be over, and I would have a beautiful life. She sat with me and my mom. She hugged us and listened to us. She stayed at work late and came in early. She took care of us. She sat with our pain and showed us courage. When she retired, she moved into a small condo. She is neither rich nor famous; her life seemingly small in the larger world. But I have a photo of her holding my daughter. Her face filled with joy. She is holding a child who likely wouldn’t be alive if not for her love and care for me when I was a child. If not for her small moments of love and attention, my child might have never made it into the world. She didn’t make passive declarations on t-shirts and yard signs about how much she loved sick children. She didn’t have time. She was too busy living those values.
As the saying goes, changing the human heart is the work of a lifetime and that is why you have a lifetime to do it. As 2020 falls further into the past, it’s worth reflecting on the stories of others. To start noticing who is humanized and who is not. To start noticing when our own hearts fall into judgement, polarization, and blame. When we treat others exactly how we wouldn’t want to be treated. A better world starts with your own heart. In the small moments when you are brave enough to set aside yourself for the sake of another.
When I read the comments on social media about my face, I didn’t respond. I was too busy. Too busy serving my community, loving my husband, and raising my child. I will not be remembered for my beauty, money, or fame. I have none of those things. But I hope I will be remembered for acting with grace in small and personal moments. I hope that people who know me will be more willing to learn the story of another. I hope my life is enough to change your heart.
MELISSA WILEY is deputy town administrator for Erie, Colorado.