Radical empathy for Joe Biden (and parents affected by addiction)

October 26, 2020
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Radical empathy is not about you and what you would do in a situation that you have never been in and perhaps never will. It is the generosity of spirit that opens your heart to the true experience and pain and perspective of another. . . . The work that goes into learning another person’s reality opens up new ways of seeing the world . . . You gain a greater comprehension of people and systems that may otherwise confound you . . . radical empathy does not necessarily mean that you agree but that you understand from a place of deep knowing. In fact, empathy may hold more power when tested against someone with whom you do not agree and may be the strongest path to connection with someone you might otherwise oppose.

Isabel Wilkerson

There’s been a lot of attention devoted to Biden’s statements on drug policy and people who use drugs. I don’t know that these are representative, but this is how I’d describe the reactions in my inboxes and feeds:

For many, it is beyond comprehension how a smart and knowledgeable person could hold love for addicts, want to prevent addiction, believe no one should go to jail for a drug problem, and want to maintain criminal penalties for drug charges.

It is beyond comprehension if you have a certain world view and immerse yourself in certain subcultures.

However, if you attend meetings of community coalitions full of family members who have been affected by addiction, Biden’s statements will be be familiar and the logic will be obvious, even if you don’t share these views.

People who have suffered along with an addicted child or loved one often bring a different perspective than academics, libertarians, activists, etc. They often don’t see it as a choice, a civil liberties issue, or something secondary to social issues.

They see their loved one out of control, slipping away, in frequent danger, and engaged in a constant struggle with an illness that seems determined to destroy/steal/replace/disable the person they love. The behavior we see in their addiction is not their true self. They are desperate for something, anything, to interrupt this process.

Further, it’s often infuriating to them that so many experts have a lot to say, but look a lot  like passive observers, often fail to acknowledge their loss, fault to see that person making these “choices” is not their true self, and don’t offer an path to bringing their loved one back to themselves and their families.

This post isn’t about Joe Biden or his drug policies past, present, or future, though those are topics worthy of exploration. This post is more about the head scratching and exasperation I read about his statements and positions. If you step outside of your own ways of knowing, your own perspective, and spend time around parents who feel helpless and scared for themselves, their children, and grandchildren, you can hear Joe Biden as a father struggling with the reality that there are no easy answers.

UPDATE: These are people who have to live with contradictions. Many of them simultaneously hold space for the following:

  • Anger at systems and experts who seem to fail their loved one.
  • Frustration with systems that wall them out in the name of self-determination and privacy.
  • Love and pride for the person they love.
  • Anger and frustration toward the person they love about missed opportunities and family members having to deal with the consequences.
  • Heartbreak and fear when their loved one is arrested.
  • Relief when their loved one is arrested because they are not using in the streets, may have new types of help offered to them, and may be forced into treatment.
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