On Empathy

  • “Feeling too much is a hell of a lot better than feeling nothing.” Nora Roberts
  • “I believe empathy is the most essential quality of civilization.” Roger Ebert.

At this moment in time my son is watching two wasps. Both of these wasps have been sprayed with quite a lot of insect killer. One of the wasps died quite quickly, its tiny legs still clinging onto a hanging window blind. The other twitched and buzzed and fought and kicked its legs. The spray closing all the air vents on its body and slowly suffocating the wasp to death. I killed them for no other reason that my child was scared they would sting him. For their potential to cause pain, they died. When I sprayed them, I felt no emotion and neither did my child. Few people would. Vegans, maybe. Buddhists definitely.

A few months ago, my wife was in the throes of sleep paralysis. This is where a person is asleep but also awake. They cannot move their limbs and they cannot speak as the parts of the brain that controls these movements has been shut down. It is, apparently, terrifying. They hallucinate and see horrific things. One this occasion my wife saw our child walk into our room with his head in a plastic bag. She couldn’t move her arms to remove the bag from his head. In the waking dream I was laughing about this and not trying to help. When she finally managed to snap out of this vision, she woke me. Maybe she expected some comforting words. A reassuring hug and an arm wrapped around her. Well chosen words that soothed her racing mind and calmed her pounding heart. Did she get that? No. I said, “well, he isn’t suffocating so it is ok”. Which is technically correct. He didn’t walk in with a plastic bag over head. And he didn’t suffocate to death. Quite coldly logical when you think about it. However, that is not what I was supposed to say. Because I have not suffered from sleep paralysis, I do not know what it feels like to suffer from them. The adjective here is doing a lot of heavy lifting. It assumes that I should know what to say. It also allows for the thought that someone has sat me down and said, ‘if this happens you say this’. Or do people know this stuff instinctively?

Why did I mention the wasps and then the sleep paralysis? Well, I treated both of these incidents with the same level of detachment. I always thought I was an empathetic person. Though I rarely get upset about the fate of characters in movies or books. When students get upset in class, a downside of working with teenagers, I am at a loss as to what to say. It got to a stage in one school that the other students knew this and would offer to help the upset student and allow me to carry on with the lesson. I know what it is to be empathetic but I would appear to lack this quality.

I often feel like I don’t understand why people feel the way they do. I put this down to being down to a simple absence of emotional intelligence. I find it hard to know why I am feeling what I do or even what I am feeling. Everything feels on a level plain. An acquaintance of mine who is also on the ASD spectrum feels like she “feels everything”. Maybe she has an abundance of empathy, this I imagine can be overwhelming. I imagine, I do not know.

Empathy is based on being able to access your emotional memory and apply this to your imagination. This allows the empathetic person to imagine, with clarity, how another person would feel because they can put themselves in their position. Through doing this they can connect to the emotions of the other person and say the words that, if the roles were reversed, they would want to hear. However, I do seem to find it difficult to access my emotional memory.

My wife suffers from a multitude of ailments and some days are worse for her than others. Some days it must feel like her entire body is against her and every organ in her body is fighting her. I know this on an intellectual level, this does not mean that I understand it. This can lead to me feeling frustrated when I feel overwhelmed with the housework, schoolwork, childcare and the other things I do or am meant to do each day. This feeling then leads me to be snappy. I would like to add that this could just be that I am a dick and not easy to live with. If I had more empathy then I would be able to see and feel that she is in a lot of pain. I would be able to compartmentalise my own feelings of being overwhelmed at times and be… well, better.

How much of this is being too egocentric and lacking self-awareness and how much of it is an autistic trait? If I wanted to then I could try and blame all of the less than perfect things I feel, think and do on autism but that isn’t and cannot be the truth.

This difficulty in accessing my emotional memory and linking it to the imagination does make my passion for stories seem somewhat nonsensical. Literature helps to develop empathy, to build a connection with people from other cultures and eras. It helps the reader to understand the world and to understand others. It is one of the few ways that humans can cheat death. Shakespeare, the man, who is very much dead but the plays he wrote remain and because of that part of him – his imagination and his ideas – remain. Am I missing something fundamental if I am missing this? How can I analyse the motivations of Iago if I cannot understand the pain of Othello? I love to read histories and biographies because I like to know why people did what they did and how that effected the times they lived in. I have through years of reading and studying become able to work out character and authorial motivations. When I read I do not see the world the writer has created in my mind’s eye. Others, I know do, this is one of the massive downsides to being passionate about something but being unable to fully embrace it.

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