Empathy: Its Origins and Consequences
One thing I have always prided myself on is my empathy. To truly consider what people other than yourself are going through in their life is also usually downright egotistical. It’s easy to be wrong. Empathetic children become know-it-all unbearable adults.
When I was a child, I could not have cared less about the world around me. It seemed fairly easy to figure out–once I got the big details out of the way–mother, father, brother were simple to categorize and easier to deal with than potted florae.
What the hell Daniel? What the hell?
When I went to camp and hit puberty I realized a lot of key things. The more someone felt you understood what they were saying, the more they were predisposed to like you. So I began to pretend to care about what other people thought, and rarely, but sometimes, I actually did.
I remember at this young leadership conference (I was 14 I think) this girl hated me. She was from Texas, a lot of people there were. In hindsight, I probably fit in better than I thought, but these people were still like, “We believe abortion is wrong,” which is the dumbest argument ever. I believe recliner seats on Amtrak are wrong, but I don’t go around campaigning about it. That’s a lot worse than abortions being legal, trust me.
Anyway I may or may not have said something nasty to this girl and she wasn’t very fond of me. Sidenote: I didn’t eat in the cafeteria the entire time I was at that conference. Plus side, I dropped fifteen pounds. Downside I spent most of the time planning on hooking up with this girl with cute legs from New Orleans. I guess…mission accomplished? Wait, that was about Iraq.
This other girl had gone out of her way to assail me in some public context. I doubt it even bothered me, or if I knew it was happening. My social skills weren’t what they are now, as when I start a cold sweat at the idea of getting pinned down by a particular person here or there. Social skills are tough to come by.
One evening this girl and I were forced to sit next to each other on the bus. She’s probably married by now. I was 14 but I was very into psychoanalysis. I got her full life story in a matter of minutes. And I felt for her, I really did. She had a hard life. She hugged me afterwards, for saying what I’d said.
I think part of empathy must always be false. We could not truly pretend to support someone else’s hardships if on some level we were not able to distance ourselves from the fact that it is not happening to us.
Rachael and I argue a lot over who is more empathetic. She has the advantage of being a woman, and the advantage (eventually) of being a doctor, so she’s going to lap me eventually. People have always tended to confide in me, perhaps moreso than they should. I chalk this up to the fact that I am usually genuinely interested unless I am just doing it to manipulate them.
One of the best empathy tactics is usually appropriated by those who are unable to generate genuine feelings for others. You thought I was going to say, Christianity. That’s true, but I’m talking more about flattery. A person is being a serious flattery assassin when they repeatedly and outrageously use flattery to manipulate another, and do the same thing again mere days later!
Flattery too I learned the importance of. It was always easier to say it was a job well done, it was the best dance in Compchorea, it was the finest, most studious performance of stage and screen. In history.
Basically, I learned that it was often easier to lie, and that the importance of the truth had a minimal impact on most situations, except for those that depended on their authenticity. Like, for example, actually caring about someone. Still it was easier to lie than say what it is I felt. It’s the way in which I am my father, in the absence of all other ways.
I walked out to tenth avenue to The Kitchen for the pleasure, and I was early, so I looked around:
The opening piece, by performance artist Kalup Linzy, served as a good start and a barrel of laughs. Unfortunately he was followed by the real perpetrator of 9/11, Gary Lutz. Easily one of the poorest writers in history, dude is doomed by poor word choice to be reappropriated by hipsters as a verifiable part of the old guard in experimental fiction. In reality, Lutz is more of a sad dumb fuck than anything else, and his reading was largely talked through. It kind of worked to prove the point of a very interesting magazine with a lot of other great stuff to read–anyone rehashing Barthelme in the past, no matter how many specious Guggenheim Fellowships they’ve been awarded, is probably a turd, and mixed media is more interesting unless it is outwritten by actual talent, not hack bullshit.
Then we met up with an old friend who recently suffered a break-up. This was very sad for her, and I was very empathetic. I wanted to know everything, to figure out how the story unfolded. When LTRs dissolve, I have a hard time, I can never feel what’s it like to be on the inside when something long held unravels. It seems like preference, convenience rather than devotion to hold onto something that long. The reasons for breaking up such an arrangement seem specious and weird, the movements between people slow, like kingly swans moving on quiet water.
I have always been drawn to people with problems, people who intrinsically aren’t well-adjusted. Part of me I suppose is made to feel better by their suffering, that there is pain worse than mine, and there is. Nearly all pain is worse than one’s own, if they believe themselves capable of any understanding, any single one, in the world.
I guess part of me is also interested in making others, who mostly want to fit in, outsiders too. I have fit in from time to time, in places very different from one another. I now could slide unindentified into a room of Korean senior citizens and never miss a beat. There has always been the realization at the end of the event that I could not possibly be like these people, that I could be like no one, that I had no people.
Through college I met many like minded souls and this was a major part of my life I will not forget no matter how many times Molly calls Williamsburg “Brown South Campus.” Most of the entitled people of America are flawed, but wealth only corrupts slightly, charmingly in the truly intelligent, and snobbery is the password of this generation anyway, and my colleagues are better about what they’ve been given for no real reason than you’d think, having been humbled by serving as interns, as any slave is to a master.
There must be a letting go; there must be an abandonment of the troubles of others. I could not go own caring about problems, especially white people’s problems, as if they were my own. There is a giving up of that, it is the only way towards being happy. J.M. Coetzee puts it plainly in the ending to his classic novel Disgrace. He projects the dilemma on the animal, whose suffering we all can understand:
The dog wags its crippled rear, sniffs his face, licks his cheeks, his lips, his ears. He does nothing to stop it. ‘Come.’
Bearing him in his arms like a lamb, he re-enters the surgery. ‘I thought you would give him another week,’ says Bev Shaw. ‘Are you giving him up?’
‘Yes, I am giving him up.’
The whole point of empathy, and perhaps this is something universal, is that it is a way of putting aside what is bothering me, for you to say what is bothering you. There is no solution we can find for another person. We can not be anything to others but what we are.
More and more I believe the time I spend with the people I spend it with is fated; that is, whoever you’re with, you’re with, and there’s an underlying reason for that. I no longer try to calculate my actions to seem supportive, or to placate what I interpret as need. There is no more need for me now. On the way home I listened to this song and saw this, and that was the end.
I am the author of this recording.