Empathy Cannot Be Taught

"Just look at his eyes. They're crazy eyes," she said.

"That's right," the petite woman next to her agreed.

"I mean, you can tell. He looks crazy," the first woman said.

I was sitting in the lobby of the gym where my four-year-old daughter takes a class two days a week. I bring a book, typically, and enjoy the hour I have all to myself away from work and without one of my three kids tugging on me for attention. It's my quiet time between the heaves of storm.

Unless the storm is sitting three seats away. And by storm I mean the dressed-for-the-gym moms who don't work outside of the home, have married a man who works 60 hours a week, and fill their lonely days doing charity work. And by charity work I mean buying cupcakes they take for the weekly random holiday celebrations at their childrens' schools. These women travel in packs of 3-5. Their hair is always straight and dyed. Their eyebrows invented "on fleek." Their makeup rivals Tammy Faye. They are thin. They were the girls in high school who charmed their way onto the Honor Roll. They went to college for the football games.

You know them.

The three moms were talking about the newest school shooting, this time in Florida. The crazy man they were describing was the shooter. Their magical powers of detecting mental illness should be bottled and sent to every FBI office in the country.

"I tell you what," the first mom said, "I am pissed at the FBI. Why can't they do their job?" It wasn't hard to detect the queen bee. I didn't flatter myself into thinking I'd hear anything of substance from the other two.

"I know," both of the other moms agreed.

"I'll tell you what I thought when I saw that they'd caught him. I thought 'I hope they kill him. I hope he gets tortured.' I said that. Then I had to ask God to forgive me. Because that's someone's child. I mean, I couldn't believe I even thought that."

The other two remained quiet. Queenie repeated herself. Twice. Finally one of the other bees said, "You did the right thing. It was probably what we all thought. God knows that."

"These things happen for a reason," Queenie said.

At that moment a girl--about age 9--burst from the gym and skipped over to the women. She was Queen Bee's daughter, wearing a halter, boy shorts, and a ponytail fastened with a perfect ribbon bow. There was an exchange. Then the girl went back into the gym.

"I swear," Queenie said, "she has no empathy. I was in a car wreck, in the hospital with a broken neck and twelve breaks in my ribs, and on the day I got home Madison said, 'So if you died, who would take care of me?' That was it. Not a hug or kiss or anything. Just wanted to know what would happen if I died. The girl has no empathy. None." She threw up her hands. "I don't know what to do with her. She just doesn't."

The other two moms laughed.

It was at this moment that I had to bite my lip. I had to keep the teacher in me from rearing her ugly head. I had to keep the good citizen contained. I had to pretend I hadn't read the same page of my book three times.

Otherwise, I would've started my lecture. Or challenged her. Or punched her in the face.

It was at that moment that I wanted to scream, "Empathy is a taught emotion!"

It was at that moment that I wanted to say, "You do realize you're part of the gun violence problem, right?"

It was at that moment that I wanted to point out to Queenie and the rest of her bees that they lack empathy, thus their children lack empathy, thus they are creating a hive without empathy.

I've heard a lot of stupid shit over the last 20 years while teaching in public colleges and universities. But these women, in their bubbles of privilege, admit and laugh about the fact that they can't be bothered to teach their own children what it means to experience the world through the eyes of anyone else. They can't be bothered to do just a small amount of research on their own to understand the cultural perpetuation of gun violence that is a uniquely American trait. They can't be bothered to parent. They can't be bothered. They can't be bothered.

And as if they were reading my mind, they moved on to discussing what does bother them: the cruises they were booking for their fall vacations. They've already booked their summer vacations--beach destinations--so their fall cruises to Jamaica will allow them to keep their tans into the winter.

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