When did you last show empathy towards another human being? Is being empathetic something you practice on a daily basis? Are you sensitive to the suffering of others? Sounds simple, right? I always thought so. However, I have begun to realize that the conscious desire to be an empathetic person is not something everyone has. Or, perhaps, some people just lack their empathy bone.

I guess most people know where their funny bone is located. The long bone of the upper arm is known as the humerus, and when one pronounces the word, it sounds just like humorous. Hence, the funny bone. So if most people know where their funny bone is located, I wonder if people know where their empathy bone is located. Probably not. As far as I know, we don’t actually have an empathy “bone” since it is a cerebral entity, but we should not have to bang our heads or elbows in desperation to discover that we might actually be sensitive to another person’s pain and suffering. Should we? When is the last time you felt empathy for someone? What was it like? When is the last time you dealt with someone who clearly had no empathy bone? Did you crack that person over the head with your funny bone? Well, if the person I am writing about had been sitting in the same room with me, I would have smacked her with my humerus, and it would not have been humorous.

During an online discussion about creative writing, a friend of mine wrote about a student breaking down in class. Then, FBG (Facebook Gal) suggested that in creative writing classes (and I am guessing elsewhere in life), “adults have bigger demons, less innocence, and bigger panties,” and thus should be able to deal with criticism and not cry in class or anywhere else for that matter. I, along with others, pointed out that perhaps the student was just going through a tough time or having a bad day, and the age of a person should not dictate how many demons one has or how much innocence (or lack thereof) one has.

FBG then informed folks participating in the tremulous thread of conversation that she worked in a hospital, and she attempted to suggest her previous comments were about someone in high school and not a “full grown woman.” Following that, FBG tried to clarify who had the right to cry in public: “Having cancer is having a bad day, and [she] hardly ever see[s] them cry about it.” These are the following two posts:

Me: “Yes, FBG, having cancer sucks. I happen to have a brain tumor, and I can tell you about having a bad day. If you don’t see me crying, it doesn’t mean I don’t cry in private. I am a full-grown woman (whatever that means) if that makes any difference.”

FBG: “I’m not going to argue with a woman with a brain tumor, but I am curious as to why my comments are received [sic] color coated like skittles by all the other commentators. Hey I used a simile!” She followed her last comment with a smiley face.

Well, shiver me empathetic timbers! I told my husband that if I am ever in a hospital where this woman works to make sure she stays far away from me. I wouldn’t care if she showed up with fifty smiley faces, and she was writing similes by the dozen.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on one’s point of view, my friend who posed the original question, decided to delete the post and all comments. Luckily I had printed off the post and the comments, because I wanted to reread the comments at my own leisure and try to make sense of how the conversation had taken such a weird turn. I should have remembered something my mother taught me years ago: “Don’t get into a pissing match with a skunk, because the skunk always wins, and you will come out stinky.” My idea for an updated version of this analogy would be this: “Don’t get into a pissing match with a complete stranger on Facebook, because that person always wins, because you stop responding in disgust.” But in all actuality, that person doesn’t really win the argument when he or she decides to deride the conversation by demonstrating a clear lack of an empathy bone.

Now perhaps FBG is really a nice person, and she just had a bad day on FB. Perhaps she does have an empathy bone. She does, after all, work at a hospital. I wish I knew which hospital it is, since it is a hospital where cancer patients don’t cry in front of her. I would have welcomed this scenario when I spent so many years in numerous hospitals and nursing homes when my parents were dying or when my daughter lay dying in the hospital.

Perhaps my empathy bone is overdeveloped. After all, I am a “full grown woman,” and “I’ve got bigger demons and less innocence.” It certainly is true that I have “big girl panties.” But I think my empathy bone started gaining strength after years of sitting in my office at work, and either reading student journals or listening to students who have suffered abuse at home; or young women who have been raped; or young men who have been beaten by their fathers for years; or students whose parents are going through a divorce and it is just killing them; or students whose parents or brothers or sisters are dying of cancer. And, yes, a great many of these students cried, and I cried along with them. Why are we so afraid of tears? Aren’t tears the lubricant for one’s empathy bone?

I want to thank FBG for making me think about ways in which I can be more empathetic to others. I am working on ways to be kinder to others every day—and am working on the notion that someone might be having a bad day if he or she tries to run over me when I am out running. Sometimes I can feel my middle finger start to rise in protest, and I want to shout the word “asshole,” but I am working on those nasty past behaviors of mine.

FBG also taught me a lesson: Not everyone is going to cut me any slack just because I have a brain tumor. In other words, I need to keep my big girl panties on at all times and deal with my demons. If someone wants to make a simile out of my misfortune, well, that is his or her right. A smiley face is optional.