The Limits of Empathy

This essay originally appeared in the debut issue of Offline Magazine, an ahead-of-its-time digital magazine app.

Thank you for letting me stay with you on my visit to Los Angeles. I feel as though I know you much better after spending time in your condo, because by living with someone, even for a week, we are confronted everywhere we turn by the results of their thinking. Some of these choices may seem strange to us at first – like the stack of empty but assembled food storage containers on a chair next to the old desk you use as a dining table, or the small bag for kitchen garbage you keep in your refrigerator, or that all your silverware is plastic – but we quickly adapt to and inhabit the logic of the new environment. I’ve been thinking that perhaps living with someone is the closest we can come to being that person.

I’ve also been thinking, as you know, about the conversation we had on my last night at your place, with our mutual friend Ian, who was in town for a wedding. You had broached the topic earlier in my stay. We had discussed it briefly and at the time I hadn’t taken it seriously, dismissing it in my mind as wishful thinking. But when you bring it up again, I realize you’re serious about this surgery, even if you don’t plan on getting it anytime soon. You’re serious about having your legs lengthened.

You describe to us how it works: The doctor fractures your leg bones using what is essentially a hammer and chisel, then implants a thin, telescopic metal rod into the tibia, securing the rod with screws at both ends. He extends the rod, creating a gap between the broken bone ends. The body’s natural healing processes kick in, generating new bone, muscles, nerves, blood vessels to fill the gap. Before the replacement bone and tissue can fully heal, the gap is widened, up to a millimeter a day. The surgery, you say, including lengthening, healing, and physical therapy, takes at least three months and costs eighty-five thousand dollars, and yields a two-and-a-half-inch increase in height. The procedure can then be repeated on the upper leg for a total gain of five inches. You would want to get two surgeries, you say. You’re 5′5″ but you’re long-torsoed, you say. You measured your body and you have the torso of someone who is closer to 5′10″.

You can tell by the wince on my face that, this time, I realize you’re serious. Ian is also stunned, but he’s inquisitive, too. Ian’s asking for details, I’m mostly silent. My instinct is that there is something grossly wrong about paying to cause yourself severe bodily harm, just so you can be a few inches taller. My instinct is to try to talk you out of it. But I don’t have the words yet.

You show us a video from an ABC News report about the surgery. The report explains that the surgery is usually performed to correct dwarfism or severe physical deformity. But more men are getting the surgery for cosmetic reasons, the reporter says. He calls it “part a growing – no pun intended – but controversial trend.” The reporter interviews a white man in New York who went from 5′6″ to 6′1″, whose face is hidden and voice is distorted to conceal his identity. The New York man is still in mid-lengthening – his target height is 6′2″ – and controls the daily adjustments to the implanted rod himself, by twisting his ankle until there is a “click.” The sound is so visceral, like the sound of a jaw popping, that I wince again. You would opt for a more state-of-the-art lengthening procedure, you say, in which the rod is extended via remote control; a safer though pricier procedure offered by a doctor in West Palm Beach.

The reporter also interviews an Indian man who went from 4′11½″ to 5′2″. “There are people that have said, you know, just accept what God gave you,” the man says. “But everybody is trying to alter what God gave them. If kids have crooked teeth, they’ll get braces.”

Earlier in the night we talked about braces. All three of us had them, Ian twice over four years during middle and high school. Ian said he had been incredibly self-conscious about his crooked teeth. He would try to not laugh too hard at anyone’s jokes, and relied on an assortment of close-lipped smiles in public, including one in which he would curl his lip under his top teeth. When he finally got his braces off he discovered in himself an unexpected confidence. But more importantly, he would tell me later, he felt more like himself. “What’s the difference between braces and this surgery,” you ask. “Is there just a stigma around leg-lengthening because not as many people have done it?”

We talk about career, and dating. You mention studies finding that taller men are perceived as more attractive, more charismatic, better leaders. You talk about how taller men are taken more seriously, command more respect, especially in your profession, where being respected is paramount to doing great work. You go on about how being a shorter-than-average male limits your pool of potential romantic partners. I say that respect and attractiveness come from many sources. You say you understand, but that it’s like you’re stepping up to the plate with two strikes against you, and you just want to clear the count. The video ends with the reporter asking the New York man if the surgery was worth it, if it has helped his luck with women. The man says, “My dating life has improved exponentially.” You say that word with relish: exponentially.

We talk about Gattaca. The main character in the movie, Vincent, is a genetically inferior man living in a eugenic dystopia. Vincent’s life goal is to travel to space, but his nearsightedness and heart condition prevent him from meeting the space program’s strict genetic standards. Rather than give up on his dream, Vincent assumes another man’s identity and undergoes leg-lengthening surgery to match the man’s height. “It’s the same thing with me,” you say. “He’s willing to do whatever it takes to achieve his goal.”

We talk about race. We’ve talked about this a lot, you and I. There is racial bias in your profession too, I say. Being an Asian male also puts you at a disadvantage. I ask you what the difference is between height surgery and getting your skin bleached and lines added to your eyelids, and you say the difference is you identify as Asian while you don’t identify as short. “When I see myself standing next to people in pictures,” you say, “I’m always surprised to see that everyone’s so much taller than me, when I don’t feel that way, when I feel like I’m average height. I just want how the world sees me to match up with how I see myself.”

Everything you say is logical. Yet it still feels wrong to me; I still wince when I think about it. I still, I realize, want desperately to talk you out of it.

And I can’t explain why.

I am not 5′5″. I have been 5′5″ only once in my life, for a period of several weeks during my junior year of high school. I hit my growth spurt late, was still growing into college, and to this day when I catch up with my best friends from back then they sometimes ask me if I’ve gotten taller. As an adult, I have only known what it’s like to be six feet tall. I have never had trouble seeing in a crowded room. I have never heard people around me use the expression “six-foot-handsome, five-foot-nothing.” I have never had a girlfriend complain to me that she can’t wear high heels when we go out. And I have never broken up with said girlfriend only to find out months later that she is dating someone who appears to be seven inches taller than me. To find out years later that she is engaged to that same person. I want to tell you it’s not worth it, but I feel like I have no right, because how can I understand what you’ve been through?

I leave LA but our conversation stays with me. I read articles about limb-lengthening. I find a discussion forum populated by people who’ve had the surgery and people who are considering it. There are patient diaries organized into subforums by the names of prominent doctors, as there are still relatively few doctors around the world who perform the surgery cosmetically. I go through the diaries. I read accounts of anticipation, discomfort, progress. I look at photographs of facilities in Germany and China, of before-and-after shots, of x-rays of solid white rods running through separated femurs and tibias with a St. Elmo’s Fire of calcium and tissue at the fractured bone ends. I read Q&As with doctors, learn the various lengthening methods, the acronyms, the jargon. LL. MMT. Initial distraction. Consolidation. Fitbon. Alibizzia. ISKD. Ilizarov. I learn that limb-lengthening was pioneered in the 1950s by a Soviet orthopedic surgeon named Gavril Abramovich Ilizarov. The technique is still used by some doctors and involves a ringed external apparatus. It’s the one they use in Gattaca.

I re-watch Gattaca, and after I re-watch Gattaca I send you a message. I come away from that movie with a different interpretation, I say. It’s really a story of a man who, regardless of what he does to his body, in the end can’t hide who he really is, and once he has accepted himself for who he is, finds others who accept him as well. You respond and say you don’t necessarily disagree, but to you the movie is saying there is inner strength, determination, human spirit, between the genes that can’t be identified with a microscope; that one can be stronger and more willing to endure the struggle, even when society tells one one is not strong. It seems like I view the surgery as an easy way out, you say. Whereas you see it as struggle that few would be willing to brave.

And you point out that the main character would never have been in a position to be accepted had he not gotten the surgery in the first place.

I remember a conversation I had months ago with a friend in New York. Because of his smaller stature, this friend said, when he walks down the street, men walking the opposite direction will sometimes subconsciously veer from their own path to walk into his, and on occasion even bump his arm or shoulder as they pass.

I remember when you picked me up from the airport after I landed in LA. We were driving to your apartment in your Honda Civic and you said it was a lot better than your previous car, a Toyota Tercel. Nobody respected the Tercel, you said. When you were in that car others were more inclined to tailgate you, harass you. One time you were stuck in traffic, you said, and a pair of children in the car in the adjacent lane threw coins at your vehicle.

And I remember the day in my sophomore year high school art class, before I had my growth spurt, when an upperclassman commented on how short and skinny I was and with little effort lifted me into the air above his head. I had never felt so emasculated, yet until now, I had always viewed that experience as a vestige of the high school experience – of teenage immaturity – rather than some continuing social prejudice.

I go to the gym and when I come back, I experience unusual soreness in my knees.

Do you remember what you told us over dinner at the ramen noodle place on Sawtelle? You were talking about about a study you’d come across involving the game Monopoly. The researchers put two participants into a rigged game of Monopoly: one player started the game with half the amount of money as the other player, could roll only one die instead of two, and could collect only one hundred dollars when passing “GO”. They observed that players with the advantage were more likely to be inconsiderate toward the other player, doing things like bossing them around or moving their piece for them. They were even more likely to grab pretzels from a bowl that had been placed off to the side of the game board. The researchers also found that this behavior was present regardless of the participants’ socioeconomic background. Someone who was poor in the real life but “wealthy” in the game tended to exhibit, in this context, the behaviors commonly observed among rich people in real life. The converse was true, too: those who were wealthy in real life but “poor” in the game tended to be more generous, more likely to offer help to others – behaviors more commonly observed among poorer people in real life.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that experiment, about how it pertains to not just financial wealth but to physical wealth; not just to privilege or entitlement but to empathy. For someone with the privilege of height, someone who hasn’t been through what you’ve been through, the empathy of understanding your position isn’t so easily imparted as with a controlled experiment around a game of Monopoly. It is an empathy that must be culled from an array of sources, a wobbly bridge built from scraps of driftwood, and I am not sure my bridge is sturdy enough. I believe that this is the reason I still, as I write this, feel in my gut that you should not have the surgery.

Just as, I try to imagine, you feel in your gut that you should. I can expound on the risk not justifying the reward, but I’m sure you already know the risks. I’m sure you’re aware of the one-in-fifty chance of complications that would require additional surgery. I’m sure you’re aware that although the pain after the operation varies from patient to patient, some have said it was by far the worst pain they’ve ever experienced. I’m sure you’re aware of the time lost to recovery, that you will have to put your life on hold for months, an amount of time much more impacting than the hours you lose getting braces for your teeth. I can read more and learn more but on a fundamental level you will always know more about the surgery than I do – because I do not know what it’s like to be you.

But what I can tell you what I do know, and what I know has less to do with the surgery than how you see the world in which the surgery takes place. I know that the world isn’t as black and white as those studies you cite, and certainly not as black and white as Gattaca. There are exceptions, even in your industry; examples of people who are well-respected but shorter than 5′ 5″. I know that there are people, like Ian, who are in loving relationships in spite of being 5′ 5″, and some who are in loving relationships because they are 5′ 5″. “Where are those people?” I imagine you asking. It’s up to you to find them, to devote as much attention and interest, even more attention and interest, in finding them, in surrounding yourself with them, than the attention and interest you devote to learning about the surgery. You say that you already have strikes against you, but that’s only if you think of life as a baseball game. This is merely a story you have adopted to make sense of a senseless experience. You could adopt a different story, one life being a murky, polluted river that must be purified, filtered, and that your height gives you an advantage, makes it easier to identify the people, like your ex, who do not belong in your life. I am not suggesting you should accept this new story, or that you should give up on your goals. I am asking you to take a close look at the stories you are telling yourself. Because life is not a baseball game. It is not Gattaca. It may resemble these things to a degree but at a certain point the metaphors break down. When we hold onto them too tightly they become crutches we use to avoid thinking and understanding – truly understanding. We have to drill into them, unravel them, put them under stress and figure out when they no longer serve their purpose. Wisdom is knowing when to drop the metaphor.

I also know this: I am not you.

But I am your friend. And if one day a few years from now you decide you still want to go through with the surgery, I’ll be there, in West Palm Beach, to pick you up and take you home.