It seems impossible to believe now but there once was a time when beauty pageants commanded the TV spotlight and families gathered in the glow to see which woman would tearfully accept a crown and ascend to her role as Queen of the Beautiful. In my childhood home, we never missed the Miss Universe pageant, with its miles of gleaming teeth, lacquered hair, and Stepfordesque perfection. Even after I crossed into the teen tunnel of darkness, I still partook of the annual tradition since, for a spike-haired wannabe punk ready to toss her parents’ sacred cows into the bin, these pageants were a veritable snark-buffet.
Long before my teen angst, however, one of my first pageant memories was watching my mom dissolve into tears at the end—as she would do at the end of every pageant, I would soon learn. Mystified, I asked her why she was crying. “Because…I feel so bad for the losers,” she sobbed.
I laughed. “Oh mom, you’re so silly.”
Of course, I didn’t know then where my mother’s deep well of empathy sprang from, and even if I did I’m not sure I would have given her the credit she deserved without a lived experience of my own. My family wasn’t rich and I would never be a beauty queen but I grew up never wanting for much, in a family that loved me, in a world that loved blondes, with the metabolism of a hummingbird on speed and looks that were only a few notches below “popular girl” pretty. My mother’s childhood had been a struggle on all fronts and as an adult she continuously battled with her weight and self-esteem. She wept for those lovely ladies bereft of crowns because she knew how it felt to be passed over, to be a loser.
Looking back, despite any flaws and shortcomings, in the twenty-six years I had with her, my mother gave me a masterclass in empathy. In return, I gave her my disdain. I didn’t see a human whose past suffering opened a window in her heart and allowed her to see more profoundly into the hearts of others, I saw weakness.
I’ve written in these Chronicles about my late arrival to empathy but these past few years, particularly since the start of Covid, have driven home to me not only the importance of empathy in our world but also how eager others are to paint it as weak, soft, and naïve. Let me tell you something about my mother, the best part of her, the strongest and most admirable part of her, was her empathy. I can’t imagine how much courage it took for her to sit in front of that TV screen every year to watch the Miss Universe pageant, knowing she would cry and knowing the rest of us would tease her about it and make her feel like another kind of loser.
And that is the smallest and least significant example of my mother’s empathy. We once cared for a former neighbour’s son for a year so that his single mom (still a rarity in those days) could get ahead financially. I’m sure my parents received some financial compensation but it was a big commitment nevertheless. Michael—who was six, the same age as me—lived with us full time, with only infrequent visits with his mother since she lived a long drive away from us. We even took Michael with us on our three-week summer vacation to California. My parents showed this boy the same love and care they showed me, which was a lot.
Ask yourself, would you take a six-year-old into your care for a year? Not for a family member or your dear friend, but for a neighbour and for probably not much more payment than enough to cover groceries and a few expenses? Are you that strong? I’m not.
Empathy is not weakness. Only fools believe that—and I have been that fool.
These days, my head feels like it’s stuffed full of angry bees. I’ve started and discarded more of these Chronicles than I can count. Many more never made it out of my head. One made it all the way to a first draft and died after I shared it with a friend who I suspected might be harmed by the content. I am in a constant state of conflict between the desire to dump all my thoughts onto the page and the desire to be mindful of others’ feelings. There’s too much division as it is and I don’t want to drive the wedge even further.
But I’m also appalled and distressed at the lack of empathy I see and read and hear about. I’m frustrated and saddened by the narrative that has infected a substantial percentage of our society, namely equating a desire for fairness and equality and empathizing with those at the bottoms of our social ladders with weakness. Especially since, thanks to a combination of Covid, unchecked capitalism, and environmental stresses, there are so very many of us at the bottoms of those ladders (whether we want to admit it or not).
I watched an old, overweight, unfit man, who pays a pittance in taxes (when he’s paid them at all), amble out of a hospital where he received the best and most expensive treatment tax payer money could buy and declare that because he is well the rest of us are overreacting about a global pandemic and shouldn’t worry. I watched this and I knew those same people who see empathy as weakness would agree with him and they would carry on endangering others with criminally reckless abandon. They will mock and threaten those of us who take steps to protect those with the most to lose. They will have been emboldened by a leader who wouldn’t know empathy if he groped it at a party.
In 2020, it’s hard to believe that beauty pageants even exist, let alone once commanded so much public attention. What kind of shallow culture parades women around on a stage to be judged on their appearance and parlour tricks like a bunch of trained circus animals? There’s nothing wrong with competition—I’m pretty competitive myself—but some contests have no place in an enlightened society. (And they certainly should not be run by lecherous old men who like to pop into the change rooms unannounced.) I think most of us are ready to let them disappear like the outdated relics they are.
Our society is full of folks who lost a rigged game or who live on the edge of defeat. Maybe it’s time to realize that we’re all losers sometimes and that doesn’t make us any less deserving of kindness, care, comfort…and even a crown or two.
I have shed my share of tears since March—for the sick, for the dead, for the people left behind, for the lonely, for the poor, for the homeless, for the trapped and isolated, for the health care workers, for the essential workers who cannot afford to stay home, for my friends and family, for everyone who has lost something because of the pandemic—including me. If my mother were here today and asked me why I was crying, I would hug her and say, “Because I feel so bad for the losers.”