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MLA Full: "Empathy and its Limits." YouTube, uploaded by vlogbrothers, 28 February 2023,
MLA Inline: (vlogbrothers, 2023)
APA Full: vlogbrothers. (2023, February 28). Empathy and its Limits [Video]. YouTube.
APA Inline: (vlogbrothers, 2023)
Chicago Full: vlogbrothers, "Empathy and its Limits.", February 28, 2023, YouTube, 03:46,
In which John thinks about the limits of empathy, how we conceive of suffering, and how little he knows about being a bird. This video uses a format called The Format.

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I wonder if birds dislike rainy days. Good morning, Hank, it's Tuesday. I don't know much about what it's like to be a bird, and yet I'm more like a bird than I am like almost anything. I'm trying to get some high-qualtiy footage of birds to officially emphasize my point, but whatever you know what they look like. But I'm more like a bird than I am like a bacterium, right? Or like a tree. And yet I have absolutely no idea what it's like to be a bird. Wha-wha-what are their days like? I've been thinking a lot recently about the limits of human empathy. Not to be a bummer, but over a 150,000 people are gonna die today, and if I felt as strong about all of their deaths as I would about a death in my family, I wouldn't be able to function, right? So I understand that empathy needs to have limits, but like, I feel like my empathy is-is too limited. 

So this sycamore tree is actually older than the moving image, so I-I'm filming something that existed before the idea of filming something. Do birds enjoy the smell of pine trees? Do they dwell on their past failures? Do they feel like a kind of low-level background anxiety all the time? I don't know. Alright, let's get the weather post-cast with yesterday's iPhone, John. It's raining, which may or may not be pleasant for birds. I-I don't know.

Of course strategies for limiting empathy are built right into our language, like, think about the English word used to describe people in the 19th century disabled by tuberculosis: Invalid. They were literally called invalid. Invalids were often unable to get out of bed which made it difficult for them to participate in the social interactions that were deemed essential to humanity, from worship services to participating in physical chores. And when you read memories by people who identified as "invalids" in the 19th century, they often express a feeling that the world is ignoring them and has left them behind, as if they full empathy of their community cannot extend to them because they've become invisible. Because they are somehow invalid.

I mean buying this 30-foot microphone cord is the single best decision of my entire life so far. But of course there's nothing invalid about living with illness, except that our social order makes it so. Am I on screen? I can't really tell. I'm just gonna, oh that's me. Anyway, reading about how bad we were at listening to the sick in the 19th century has really helped emphasize for me how bad we still are at it. Like about 93% of all humans who are currently alive will eventually die of illness. I'm down here by the way. A phenomenon so common that we refer to such deaths as natural, as in the sentence, "they died of natural causes." So being sick isn't unnatural or invalid, it's literally universal and yet still, we try to explain away or deny other people's suffering. We say, "Oh, it's all in their head" or "Oh, that happened because they smoked cigarettes" or  "Because they ate these foods." Illness is not some moral narrative, and conceiving of it that way is yet another barrier to empathy.

I guess the thing about birds is that we can't listen to them, or at least we haven't yet figured out a way to listen to them well. But we can listen to other people. Like people in the 19th century could have listened to invalids. I know because I've just read a bunch of their memoirs. I guess there probably is something inherently isolating about illness, right? Like when I had meningitis, I was very rarely alone except in my fear and pain where I was always alone. But there is something I can do. I can't know what it's like to be a bird and I can't know what it's like to have someone else's pain, but I can listen to other people when they tell me of their pain and I can believe them. In short, we validate each other.

Hank, I'll see you on Friday.