On Empathy

A Sobering New Year Message

This was supposed to be written and published last month, but the warm grip of the holidays took hold of much of my time. Not that I intended on resisting. On that vein, I hope everyone reading this had a wonderful Christmas, and beckoned 2014 fuelled by many pleasant memories of the previous year.

Despite the quality of the memories made over the last couple of weeks, what will be written here will not be pleasant. Harsh posts have never been easy for me to write, and this one is certainly no exception. But it will be very, very necessary.

Beyond Someone Else’s Shoes

Shortly before my Christmas vacation, the Indonesian advertising industry was shocked over the news of a young copywriter, who fell into a coma and died shortly after working for 30 straight hours that were mostly sustained by excessive amounts of energy drinks. Her passing brought on a slew of reactions posted online from local and international walks of life, the headline hitting particularly hard on those familiar with an agency. This is not an isolated incident, however. Just last year, a PR staff in Beijing, China collapsed and “died at his desk”. It prompted a brief, but strong discussion on the subject of corporate culture, even though the company the late young man was employed under denied overwork as the cause.

A similar forum spurred last December. Many comments were imprinted throughout various social media channels, ranging from mostly incensed words and finger-pointing, to the occasional proposed solution to keep a death like this from ever repeating itself. Agreement on any of these were expressed through “Like”-s and the dissemination of the information across other networks of contacts. It was a knee-jerk reaction, clearly, but a fair one. People needed comfort at a time like this, and for those it hit close to home, the necessity of it was louder.

I spent the first couple days reading these posts through the websites I frequent, trying to grasp the harsh reality of what had transpired. Seeing as it happened near the end of 2013, I couldn’t even begin to imagine the pre-holiday anguish of the many who have survived her. In fact, I’m writing this with much trepidation of inadvertently touching the fresh wounds of anyone associated. But as I read through the views of those who caught on with the news, each additional statement felt like an opportunistic grab at making this unfortunate situation a personal crusade. What initially was a medium for airing grievances on the direction of work-life balance ran horribly off-track and convoluted into a playground competition of comparing battle scars.

Hard is not Relative; Hard is Hard

In the midst of the blame game, I read many posts casting angry words at the figures overseeing her work, be it her Creative Lead or Director, the client-facing departments, or the higher management. The finer details of all that go way beyond my scope, even if some held water. Still, I didn’t feel it was right to resort to feeling particular offence over it all precisely because she was a fellow creative. That would mean branding the mark of Cain to virtually every Account Executive, Manager, and Director out there, which is unfair. The reverse would apply just as much. I also didn’t feel the antipathy towards the energy drink brand was warranted, either. She was doing what she needed to uphold the responsibilities of her job, and one cannot be blamed for their passion.

Many articles have also thoroughly covered health, safety, overtime work regulations, the effects of energy drinks, and the morality of capitalism. Nothing wrong in reminding people to exercise moderation in consuming Kratingdaeng. Health advisories can never be a bad thing. However, I won’t be adding my voice to that pile anymore; there are experts for that. I’m merely going to offer another perspective on a topic I saw had not yet been covered: the sickening side of the culture of validation. Acting like special snowflakes, and needing to document everything for an unnecessary audience to make judgements on the arbitrary standard of so-called “hard”. This affliction is hidden in plain sight, often unspoken, yet may already be symptomatic in all of us.

Funnily enough, all of this reminds me of something I picked up off Ash Beckham’s talk, “Coming Out of Your Closet”, which I watched some months ago. My feelings about TED Talks have changed greatly over the last few years, but Beckham, who wonderfully pointed out that all that closets are “a hard conversation”, pioneered the following quote, which only seemed fitting:

Sure, I’ll give you a hundred reasons why coming out of my closet was harder than coming out of yours, but here’s the thing: hard is not relative, hard is hard. Who can tell me that explaining to someone you’ve just declared bankruptcy is harder than telling someone you just cheated to them? Who can tell me that his coming out story is harder than telling your five-year-old you’re getting a divorce? There is no ‘harder’, there is just ‘hard’. We need to stop ranking our ‘hard’ against everyone else’s ‘hard’, to make us feel better or worse about our closets, and just commiserate on the fact that we all have ‘hard’.

If you can, take the time to watch that talk. It’s good.

It’s enough that each and every single individual reading this deals with plates of varying content. The daily dance of managing it all is nuanced but universal; it is precisely why we can experience emotional resonance to trials and tribulations. Empathy is incredibly important, because its presence in people reminds us that we not alone in feeling it. On the other hand, it becomes negated when bias is involved, particularly in the event of dismissing someone else’s personal stories as “easy” or “light”. Perhaps it is why some feel compelled to exhibit bad days like works of art, uploading vocal and visual evidence of difficulties in case a meaningless snide remark is made about their lack of comment, or going beyond one’s means for just a moment of saved face, or risking one’s own health as an effort to look tortured but industrious. It is a rat-race that easily becomes addicting, and this sort of simple-minded scaling is egotistical, and frankly, insane.

So, Be Gentle

I really hope that despite the frequent topic of her social media updates, the copywriter was projecting a cry for help instead of a social media parade. I am only so, so sorry that the call was answered too late, and can only wish her loved ones the strength to persevere in this difficult time. But all of this made me think a little harder about how we seem to value the curation of our hardships over of focusing on getting through the day. Or, harder yet, where the cultural aspects of all this stops, and the danger begins. With a little more awareness of this imprinted in our minds, maybe — just maybe — we can save a life. It could just as well be our own.


  1. Maria Celina

    @Rika: Thank you for your comment, Rika.

    Agree to disagree? It depends. In matters of doctrine (religion, for example) and other fragile discussions that lie far from the spectrum of danger, we are allowed that luxury. However, in an effort to save an individual’s life from ever being threatened by overwork, agreeing to disagree is potentially dangerous thinking. We need to be more definitive on how we regard someone else — in the case of this copywriter, from who were directly in association with her. For those more distanced, I’m sure there are varying opinions and takes across the board when this transpired last month. We’ve read them on social media. However, I still feel that when we can evolve beyond comparing notes and putting things against an incomplete standard of measurement, the complete respect we will have for each other will go beyond agreeing to disagree, and we will have a better understanding of the shocking fragility of a human life.

  2. Rika

    I love how you describe it in here. Flawless writing, I may say! If I may add up to the idea of ‘don’t compare’ and ‘hard is hard, hard is not relative’ I’d say it’s better to just always agree to disagree. Because each one of us may agree to disagree with whatever the other one agrees with :)

  3. Maria Celina

    @Denise: Thank you for sharing what you did so honestly, Denise. I’m sorry that you had to deal with such a careles comments in the wake of your father’s passing. While it could be that the second person vocalised in a knee-jerk manner, it was still uncalled for. I still find it appalling that some characters think they can quantify their plights against others, as though there really is a form of measurement at all out there. Does marketing our hardships really make us as “deep” as we may secretly want to be, as a result of all these hiccups? Don’t they realise that it’s pointless? Should it really take such a high level of intelligence, emotional or otherwise, to be able to absorb this?

    Also, I make it a point not to edit comments, unless there is the need to redact private information that could potentially harm others. Comment length has never been an issue for me. Besides, my posts are pretty long themselves. Hope you’re having a wonderful weekend, and I will reply to your email shortly.

  4. Denise

    Oh my God! You cant imagine, I have just written you an email, and it is not exactly about this topic, but a bit. You will see. Then I thought “maybe she wrote on the blog” and came here and there is this amazing article. You are so right on everything you wrote. Sad loss, for sure, I can imagine the feelings of her family. And finally, hard is not relative, hard is hard. I remember this. The feeling I had. We cant say that something is harder for some and for others not that hard. It is not this way! We can measure feelings. So some friends of mine, same nationality (maybe it was a cultural thing? I dont think so) when my dad passed away and I felt miserable – I am just normal, I think – told me, because I was away in another country and he died unexpectedly… so I couldnt see him… and they told me “ah, it is easier to recover, because you didnt see him for a while”. Is this right to say to someone mourning???? t made me feel even worse, feeling guilty because I didnt see him. Also, one of these friends had his father hit by a car, and later passed away. He said to me “stop crying, because my dad passed away in a worse way and I am not crying”. Excuse me, is there a competition to measure “worse” way? I was so shocked at his words! I said “there’s no worse way for that. We cant measure feelings. Please stop trying to be oblivious to my pain”.
    Having said that, I can only hope that the family of the one who passed away after 30 hours working, can find comfort among each other, cause no matter the way she passed away, a loss is always a loss to the family, and hard is always hard. Wow, Maria Celina, amazing post! denisesplanet com

  5. Caity

    Oh my gosh I loved that Ted Talk, Coming Out Of Your Closet. I remember watching it and being blown away. You’re right – it is one of those diamonds in the rough Ted Talks these days. It is so fitting in many situations, including this sad one.

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