Leading a good life in a bad life: Is empathy empty?

“How can one lead a good life in a bad life” by philosopher Judith Butler is as a small as thought provoking essay she wrote in the occasion of a conference on the work of Adorno. I found her words really of help for the last part of my research, particularly in the work I am carrying out with homeless people and the aspect with empathy that I have always tried to avoid in my research.

Butler starts her argument about how to lead a good life in a bad one by examining those subjects whom may be regarded as already dead. Death is in fact one of the most striking aspect Butler touches in her work. She argues how we all need to live a life that has secured itself from any threat. A life that in case of danger has a form of support, e.g. family or friends, that is going to prevent it from death.

Death in this respect can be addressed in a twofold fashion: First, the physical death of a subject which is neither prevented nor is it noticed. It is often reported how during winter many homeless people are left dying on the street. Isn’t this condition enough to say that they are non living humans whose lives are not secured from death? whose lives are, in case of danger, not supported by anybody? Secondly, the aspect with death can also be intended as social status. That is to say, a life which is socially speaking death because there is nobody that will prevent one to become homeless. Once I was explaining my project to a group of people in Edinburgh and one of them at some point outlined an interesting aspect. He asked how it was possible to become a homeless, ending his thought saying that eventually one must be either really alone or decide to cut any kinship to become a homeless. He concluded that it would be impossible for him to become a homeless person because of all his friends, family and relatives would have prevented him from that. Therefore it may be argued how also socially speaking the life of a homeless person is a non life, characterised by the absence and support of those whom are kin to you.

The argument with death is probably one of the most interesting aspect that emerged from my work with homeless people, especially if framed with that idea of empathy towards the other. In particular, once I found myself debating with other people on Facebook about a project of tiny little shelters for homeless people designed by an architect in London. I am pretty skeptical about this type of projects as I do believe they stigmatise the condition of being homeless. However, at some point one of the people debating asked me whether I had ever been homeless, arguing how to find a dry place to sleep over was surely a great solution. My answer was: “No, and that’s why in the project I am running having a relationship and sharing time with the community of homeless people I am working with is the most important part of the whole project!” However, that question perhaps outlined or implicitly admitted an aspect with empathy. Does one need to empathise with homeless people in order to offer a proper help? I believe not. I believe the answer should be readdressed in a different fashion.

The argument above mentioned with death outlines an aspect of being homeless: the lack of horizon. To use Butler again, how can one lead a good life if everything is surrounding you probably is saying that you are already regarded as dead, as a non-living human? This is why I believe the question whether I had been or not a homeless is not useful. That is, whether I have to be poor and with no place to go over night. Quite surely my background is the same as the guy in Edinburgh that said he could never found himself homeless. However, perhaps it would be more considered to think in terms of lack of horizons. This is something that perhaps everybody has experienced in his/her life. When you feel crap because you see no ways, no stimuli, when the person you care the most turns out to have left you in the moment you probably needed him/her the most. That burden inside the chest that makes you think you are just lonely, useless, inadequate…  despite all your effort. That feeling, probably is something similar to the one a person who has found him/herself homeless is experiencing everyday.

I have no idea whether this is something I started thinking because I am experiencing a tough moment myself, but I have the suspect that empathy is what homeless people don’t ask nor do they need it. This passed summer I was in Rome talking with some of the homeless people that are carrying out the project with me and one of them said: “Fabrizio don’t worry! The only important thing is that you are not ashamed of or embarrassed by being with us!” That is he was not asking me to try understanding his life. Probably the way he is living was a choice, or perhaps he just stopped believing in any better future. However, he’s request admits a sense of acceptance: I know I am a homeless person. What I ask you is to treat me with dignity. That is, he was neither pretending or asking me to be homeless nor was he pretending any sense of empathy. He was pretending a very simple thing, to have a dialogue between two humans. A type of relationship that transcends the social or cultural status, which is something cannot be universalised.

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