This phrase leads a secret double life. Its day job is simple, normally an expression of praise and awe, a compliment to someone who deals with challenging life circumstances. The neighbor who cares for a disabled spouse while somehow holding down two other jobs, or the colleague battling cancer while raising a family and managing elderly parents.
When I first had my daughter, I heard these words often because I was parenting totally alone, finishing a graduate degree, and teaching – all at the same time and with no help from family. What’s more, my daughter’s first year was atypical: premature, poor weight gain, physical and speech therapy for nearly two years.
Like many new moms, I spent weekends talking to other parents on playgrounds, at play groups – the usual.
And that’s when I noticed that these words have a shadier life than I realized. That’s right, this phrase moonlights. It is bringing in beer money while the kids are in bed.
But sadly, the beer isn’t very good. It’s more like a stale wine cooler.
That’s because when people tossed out this apparent call of wonder – “I don’t know how you do it!” – they were generally not curious and not inviting conversation. In fact, the effect was more often the opposite: the phrase really served to shut down the possibility of exploration or connection. It was a way to sum up – and dismiss – my situation before the speaker had understood it. A way of saying not “I don’t know” but “I don’t really want to know.” In some cases the vibe was disapproving, veering toward, “That’s crazy and wrong!”
So I began to understand that this phrase was living in disguise, not really a compliment but a coded sign of difference, exclusion.
The early parenting years are now behind me, and I’m lucky to have friends who really want to know how things are.
But the crucial point is how this tendency to reject other people’s experiences plays out on a cultural scale. Einstein’s words, “Imagination is more important than knowledge” is now something of a cultural cliché, but it’s worth probing a bit. As Einstein intended, the quote is widely applied to learning itself: Imagination (rather than knowledge alone) is a crucial ingredient for progress and evolution of many kinds.
Implicit in this idea is that imagination is necessary for new knowledge because discoveries, technologies, and species – which eventually become conventional knowledge – depend on the exercise of imagination. So even if imagination is more valuable than knowledge, they are in fact interdependent.
The relationship might be more important than the hierarchy.
This idea has huge consequences for the social interactions that shape culture. Precisely because we cannot know absolutely the experience of another person, we can only learn more by taking the trouble to find out and using what we hear to imagine a life different from our own. Imagination, it turns out, is also a necessary ingredient of empathy.
Why does this matter? Because without empathy, there can be no social progress. Without some understanding of the experiences of others, it’s hard to justify policy supporting the needs of people in diverse societies.
Case in point: the news cycle has long discarded this story, but I’m still wondering how Michelle Knight, Gina DeJesus, and Amanda Berry (and her young daughter) survived imprisonment in the house of monster for a decade. I’m not talking tabloid curiosity here. We need not indulge in bad taste and pry out the grim details. I want to know how these women survived and will survive the psychological fallout – and not in the broken-down catharsis of talk shows either – but in the basic sense of human suffering and the stories that human beings have told for millennia as a way to make sense of it.
Entertainment is not the goal, in part because this wondering encourages me to notice another important social fact: Ariel Castro, the deranged captor, had already escaped justice for the crime of domestic violence against his former wife, whom he had beaten so badly that she suffered a blood clot in her brain, among other injuries.
I want to know how that crime was allowed to go unpunished. And I want to know how we can prevent similar situations from happening in the future (for a great start, read this blog).
This type of empathy would necessarily change some of our everyday personal interactions. It would mean shifting from the fatuous, “I don’t know how you do it” (which is, after all, a given) to, “so, how do you do it” – an invitation to imagine and know.
The ethics behind this question might seem irritating, like a finger-wagging preschool exercise on selflessness. Ultimately, though, it’s about much more: If we’ve closed ourselves off to other people’s pain, we are also likely missing out on a lot of joy. Shutting out the kind of empathy nurtured by imagination is to live a muted company-guy existence – a life no doubt fed by the stifling corporate culture that now runs much of the world. That culture goes out of its way to stifle how much we want to imagine – and hence know – about other people. The result is escape from the colleague’s dark hours of chemo, the friend’s demoralizing drug addiction, and in the worse cases, the awful suffering wrought by a neighbor’s insanity. But it also means exclusion from the joy of unexpected recovery, the hopeful life that appears out of nowhere.
I’d rather take the pain with the joy.
How do you do it?