Could We Teach Empathy Through VR?

By: Katherine Itacy, Esq.

Dated: May 30, 2018

Hi, everyone! I’m back from my surgery, and thankfully, I still have a few of my wits about me!

While the recovery process is still ongoing, and the original pain has returned, I am so thankful that the neurosurgeon was able to remove most of the tumor and untether my spinal cord. Even if none of my other neurological deficits are alleviated, and the pain remains the same as before the surgery, at least the doctor and her team were able to prevent paralysis!

Lately, I’ve been thinking about those of us with chronic pain. It’s so hard to describe sometimes, and can be so wildly subjective to the individual. On a scale of 1 to 10, is my 7 a ‘real’ 7? Or is it someone else’s 10? Maybe someone’s 10 is another person’s 4. No one really knows, because you we’ve never been able to objectively quantify someone’s pain. But what if we could?

My husband has often told me that he would take the pain away from me and feel it himself if only I could be spared from it. In fact, he’s said he’d take away all of my medical conditions from me if he could. Obviously, it’s an incredibly sweet sentiment, but I’d never want him or anyone else to have my disabilities.

But that got me thinking…. 

The hubby and I also talk a lot about the criminal justice system, as well as the discrimination that persons of color frequently face in America. He’s obviously coming from the viewpoint of law enforcement, but also as a person of color and a legal immigrant into this country. I, of course, have my limited insights as a former criminal defense attorney and civil rights activist, as well as my experiences as the wife of a Haitian male and the step-mother of a Haitian-American male.

We talk about how frustrating it is when individuals offer opinions about the experiences of persons of color in the United States, when those individuals don’t even try to consider what it might be like for a black man or a Latina female, for instance. Being able to understand what another person is experiencing or feeling is the definition of empathy. Often, it’s impossible to fully understand, but we, as people, need to at least try. Otherwise, there’d be no compassion for our fellow human being.

So what if it were possible to put yourself in someone else’s shoes for a short time?

And no, I’m not talking about the plot of Freaky Friday. I’m talking about virtual reality.

With all those new VR goggles boasting lifelike experiences, I asked the hubby this past weekend: What if someone created a “Day in the Life” VR game to foster greater empathy towards others??

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Maybe the user could experience what it’s like for the average black man to be pulled over several times in one day, just because he “fits the description” of a wanted suspect?

What if you could experience what it’s like to be in solitary confinement in prison, or on death row? How about being a day laborer in Southern California during the summertime? Or an undocumented person, traveling through the desert brush with a Coyote smuggler and a group of others trying to illegally enter the country?

How about experiencing, through VR, what it’s like for a police officer to canvass a dangerous neighborhood for an armed robber? Or a soldier on patrol?

What about trying, through VR, to make it through the day as a homeless teen on the streets of New York City? Or being a person in a wheelchair, trying to navigate yourself around a busy college campus? Or a single parent, working two jobs and trying to raise your children alone?

Now, I’m not suggesting that we create a VR game that would create pain or trauma for the user. But wouldn’t we, as a society, get along with each other better if we could better understand the struggles that so many of us endure in our lives? Don’t you think that Congress would benefit from a little more empathy before it proposed and voted on various laws?? That the average person might be a little less judgmental or self-absorbed if they better understood what others go through?

Of course, it’d be very unlikely that people with limited empathy would even want to try the VR game, but wouldn’t it be awesome if they did?

Who knows – maybe future generations could be required to play the game during high school, sort of like having to carry around a robotic baby for a few days to understand what it’d be like to be a teenage parent!

What do you think?? Could a game like this be helpful? Do you think it’d work? That the people with limited empathy would take such a game seriously? If so, what other experiences do you think it would help the user to be exposed to?

I’d love to know what you think!

You can let me know by leaving a comment below, or reaching out to me via Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Tumblr, Google+ or Twitter.

Maybe I’ll even make it the subject of a future podcast episode! You can learn more about the podcast I co-host with my BFF Nikki by visiting the website here. You can also follow us via Twitter, Facebook, Google+, YouTube, or Tumblr. We always appreciate feedback!

‘Til next time!

Life Unfinished

By: Katherine Itacy, Esq.

Dated: March 20, 2018

At this time, one week from now, I should be lying completely flat in my hospital bed, starting to recover from my second tethered cord release/laminectomy/complex lipoma removal neurosurgery. That’s if all goes well.

This surgery comes exactly thirty years (down to the month) after my initial neurosurgery. And with each passing day, I am more and more grateful that I remember very little from the initial surgery. Thank heavens for a four-year old’s limited memory retention!

In my continued pursuit of full disclosure and an authentic voice, I thought you should know: I’m scared shitless.

As most of you already know, I’m a bit of a surgery veteran at this point in my life. I’ve undergone well over forty different surgeries and procedures so far, and the majority of those occurred within the last decade. I’m not new to anesthesia or to operating rooms. I’m also relatively accustomed to high levels of pain.

I’m not scared of needles or IVs (I mean, come on: I’m a thirty-year Type I Diabetic!), I have no problem being in a hospital and I have complete confidence in my neurosurgeon.

But I’m scared shitless.

I just have this strong sense that I may not wake up from the procedure; at least, not in the same state of mind and soul. And I’m almost creepily calm about the possibility. I have all of my advanced care directives in place, ready for the hospital staff to receive and review. My family and close friends know what I would like to have happen if I pass (donations in lieu of flowers; body donated to Brown Medical School for cadaver study, followed by cremation and destruction of the remains; a fun, upbeat party instead of any sort of funeral or wake, etc.). And because I am very open and direct with others about how much I care about/love/appreciate them, it’s not really so much about not having closure with my loved ones, should I expire.

I’m a pretty practical and prepared person (how’s that for alliteration?!), so I have a lot of the paperwork and legal contingencies already in place. The statistical probability/possibility of my untimely death is totally understandable to me.

In all honesty, what’s bothering me the most is that I haven’t finished my life’s purpose yet.

My social/civic activism and criminal defense career (both of which I saw as my collective calling in life) were shut down so quickly, so dramatically and so completely since my spinal cord started re-tethering over two years ago. I’ve been working so hard to make peace with that reality, and with the fact that I may never use my legal mind ever again. But through this process, I felt the strong pull towards writing a memoir about my life’s success and struggles, particularly dealing with a diseased body. I’ve now written 210 pages of that memoir, and have begun to start the editing and peer-review process. Sadly, there’s no way it’s going to be finished within the next week, and that really frightens me.

What if I poured my heart and soul into this project, only to leave it unfinished and unread because my body finally got the best of me?

Thankfully, I have a wonderful and talented friend who has agreed to take over the project and submit it for publication if I pass or become incapacitated, and that’s a huge relief. The thing is, in the end, it still wouldn’t be one hundred percent my voice and my vision.

I’m not so self-absorbed that I think I’m the only person who’s ever felt the need to pass on their little gems of wisdom or insight into life’s fragility and unfairness. It’s just that I would never be okay with leaving this world without doing more for its betterment. I haven’t done enough. Frankly, I’ll have never done enough, but come on – ten years of activism and indigent defense cannot be my entire legacy.

If only I believed in an afterlife, my ghost would be stuck in limbo, in perpetuity, for all of my unfinished work.

Alas, I don’t, so you’re all probably safe from seeing my spirit hanging around.

And hopefully, my fears over next week’s surgery will all be for naught in the end.

But just in case, please know that I’ll be leaving this world (or my conscious mind) with these wishes and intentions:

For every single person to find warmth, comfort, love and passion; for everyone to live in good health, with pure hearts and compassionate souls, living to make their lives and the lives of those around them better; for everyone’s life to count for something substantial, and for each person’s life to have less pain, no hunger, a sense of peace and a clear and positive place in this world.

Each one of you matters, and each one of you deserves better. The world deserves better. Be better.

All my love,

Kate

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