Empathy, the concept comes back again and again in my thoughts. I try to see the world as you. You try to see the world as me. Before ever really concentrating on the term “empathy” itself, I’d long thought of reading and writing fiction as two powerful ways to loosen the hold of our own self-focused perspective and get a glimpse of what it’s like to be someone else. Or at least I hoped they might be.
Empathy, though, has at times seemed an idealistic dream to me, or a gift of the
uber-talented privileged few. We can’t possibly understand everything about
someone else’s experiences of the world. Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse—where a narrating voice hovers around a summer
vacation home able to slip in and out of the minds of the people gathered
there—was an exception. And so was James Joyce’s “Molly” chapter at the end of
Ulysses that traces in minute detail
the insomniac movements of a women trying to fall asleep one early morning in turn of the century Dublin.
Empathy writing is tricky. Having never himself experienced a sleepless night
as an insomniac wife, Joyce could be way off in his “Molly” chapter. And when
she created Charles Tansley, what did Virginia Woolf actually know about being
a young common born philosophy student, with a chip on his shoulder about his social standing, vacationing with his
famous mentor and his mentor’s upper class family? I pose skeptical questions
about whether character creation tells us much about what it’s like to walk in different shoes and feel the world from a third person perspective, and yet, without
any precise explanation at the moment of exactly how the process works, I do
still believe that Joyce and Woolf’s imaginative ventures gave us valuable
insight about living in the world with other people.
Empathy reading can also be tricky. We can easily over-generalize and arrive
at erroneous conclusions about what an author has done when writing about the world
from someone else’s perspective. With Joyce, I’m tempted to
overreach and say he has written an account of what it’s like to be a woman
from a man’s perspective. But he hasn’t. He’s written a very specific
fictitious account of a small slice of time for one woman living in a very specific time and place in history. The “Molly” chapter has not captured
the essential experience of womanhood. It’s simply a hypothesis, one
possibility, postulating how one made up woman might feel in one limited context.
And having stumbled across that term “womanhood,” my head begins to spin. So
many different possibilities, so many different contexts in which to be a woman,
could there possibly be a way of defining a condition that encompasses them all
and conveys to us men who do not know firsthand what it’s like to be a woman? Time transforms every situation, and the possibilities for framing another person's place in the world seem nearly infinite. We can always add, expand, narrow, or remove
an element and create a new and slightly altered place to understand. What is it like to be
black? What is it like to be a child? What is it like to be an 8-year-old girl growing
up in an advanced technological information saturated era ? How does it
feel to be a young black girl living in an affluent suburb of Atlanta where 75% of the students at your school are white? Relating to others would be
simple if there were a stock set of 4 or 5 different types of people to
understand. But in the detailed experience of day to day living, we slip fluidly
in and out of 100’s of categories, 1000’s of overlapping, concentric, and
entirely separated circles in the ever shifting Venn diagrams of our identities.
Empathy’s hard because it takes constant reassessment of the endlessly
complex and rich experiences that add up to make us who we are. This post has
been rather slow in developing, and along the way, I’ve done a little bit of
reading about fiction and empathy. There is an expansive academic literature on the
subject. In her article “Empathic Engagement with Narrative Fictions,” Amy
Coplan provides in one of her footnotes a workable solution that addresses the
complexity of empathic thinking: “Rarely, if ever, would we be able to
imaginatively experience everything that the other experiences since it would be virtually impossible to have awareness of all of the
target’s unconscious thoughts, desires, beliefs, and so on. This does not mean,
however, that we cannot imaginatively experience a close approximation of the
dominant thoughts and feelings that the target experiences at a particular
moment in time.” I had a strange and revealing reaction to this footnote,
conflicting emotion that clarified for me some of my own expectations about how
I want to relate to other people, a blend of hope and disappointment. Coplan
reassures with her insistence that empathy is possible despite the complexity
of other people. But her affirmation is only partial. Empathy is limited and
temporary. We get only a “close approximation” at “a particular moment in
time.” And something in me demands more. A low whispered taunt tells me this is not enough, that I’m settling if I accept these limits. This reaction seems a
strange manifestation of perfectionist thinking, and in a leap that is not fully
articulated, I wonder if my disappointment is somehow linked to possessive
desire (Help! I'm an epistemophiliac!) A question for another day. No place here to delve into musings about how we know what we know. This prologue has gone on long enough, and
I’ve not yet arrived at what I’ve really been wanting to address: the ways
guilt obstructs empathy and prevents healing relationships between depressed
people and the friends and family who support us when we’re down.
Pays au dela
"As to the natural parts I have, of which this is the essay, I find them to bow under the burden; my fancy and judgment do but grope in the dark, tripping and stumbling [wobbling] in the way, and when I have gone as far as I can, I am in no degree satisfied; I discover still a new and greater extent of land before me, with a troubled and imperfect sight and wrapped up in clouds, that I am not able to penetrate." Montaigne-"On the Education of Children"
My domain name, "Pais au dela," is the original French translated here as "extent of land before me." My goal for this page will be to explore, in an ambling way at times, the great land before me hoping to find clarity as I advance. I will focus centrally though not exclusively on mental health issues in my stumbling march forward.
Wednesday, June 12, 2013
Seeping lava oozing and solidity of the surface beginning to dry and harden into place. Several billion years of earth always shifting. A life. An eye blink. A single instant of stillness. A snap shot a mere 80 years wide. Permanent light written onto silver bromide plates objectively captures the whole picture. Ca a été. Motionless and complete. Save the blurry splotch down at the bottom. And the unnamed forms halfway jutting into the upper left corner. A half road towards virgin forests unexplored? What lies just beyond the frame? A life that could have been? A cosmic finger slipped accidentally in front of the lens? The angle of the shot, some say, makes all the difference.
A river centuries deep cuts the banks steadily migrating several feet to the left over 20 years, steady drift that never arrives. Unnoticeable change finite and constant where billions of years ago a dry colossal mass of rock and dust hover in space and time. A hot loud bang diced the rock. Jagged, two parts slipped to either side of a miniscule fissure, at first imperceptible, separating what heavens vault had originally cracked.
Time passes. With cartoon like fluidity, the fissure yawns apart. Two sublime and daunting stones repel each other and float divided by emptiness out further and further towards opposite ends of existence. Slowly the momentum dwindles and eventually comes to a full stop. The rocks spin wildly in place, out of synch, unguided, heads flipping and rotating, pointing sometimes up or down or backwards, momentarily towards and then back away from each other. A blade of grass dwarfed by light years sprouts from nothing. Faint sounds of water trickle intermittently.
The rocks are still and nearly aligned, several inches closer to each other maybe, but on this scale, it’s hard to tell. The blade of grass lengthens and several others appear. Sounds grow louder, some indistinguishable, potential signs of animated life or simply expanded notes of the mineral stream passing. The rocks are closer—it is clear—and moving again, slowly accelerating back towards their starting place. Several drops develop scattered with large empty gaps between them. Elements on mismatched scales are converging, negotiating the steps of coherence. Drops expand into puddles their blurry edges filling up the blanks between them, and pushed by the force of approaching stone, puddles find each other and flow together. Things are moving fast now. Lush vegetation bursting open. Rocks lengthening and flattening. Distinct rustlings in the brush. A steady rush of water audible as the stream shades in a final remaining hole at its center.
The edges of land and river are close. Water spills outward in all directions, an uneven ameba-like advance searching for a barrier. A first foot splashes aground and fills up the stone's outer contours. Then another upstream, and another and another. All along the shore where water touches rock, the flow recedes back towards the river’s center, spinning as it retreats coloring in the last remaining gaps to form unbroken contiguous banks fixed and reestablished back where we know them.
Wednesday, June 5, 2013
We lose parts of ourselves when we get depressed. Things that we enjoy when healthy become bland, insipid, slightly nauseating counterfeits that no longer light us up the way they did in the past. The late fall arrival of the Oscar contenders in the theaters. Talking about fascinating books with friends over filet mignon at our favorite restaurant. A bike ride through the Bois de Vincennes. Auburn wins the national title we’ve waited 25 years to see. C’est tout un. A resoundingly indifferent and drained “whatever” supplants the joyful responses you’d expect in these situations. The clinical term for this condition is “anhedonia.” On a neurological level, we lose our ability to feel pleasure, a condition that makes it considerably difficult to do anything about depression. It’s very hard to stay active (a key component of fighting depression) when the things that should cheer you up don’t.
When I crashed in the fall of 2010, I forgot how to teach. Before my infernal season, I had taken great pride in my work as a language teacher and my efforts to plan creative, engaging classes that prompted students to practice their language skills while also allowing them to express things that were important to them. I transformed very rapidly that fall from a proud, inspired, and aspiring educator, to a shelled out vacancy sloughing through everything half-asleep and gasping. I no longer felt I could motivate or connect with my students, and a disturbing fog of loss and inadequacy latched tight around me. Every step felt 30lbs too heavy, like I was carrying a log pressing down hard on my neck. Every breath felt like I was only getting half the oxygen I needed. (Recently, I heard a man on television say that this feeling is like wearing a lead trench coat all the time.) I sat for hours stiff and empty in front of a blank computer screen searching for the next day’s lesson and producing nothing. At times, my mind swung from that stifled, lifeless stare into accusing recriminations, asking what the fuck was wrong with me and why I couldn’t just get my work done.
Things got really ugly for me at work that semester. Several days while trying to work on planning in my office, I punched myself in the head over and over progressively harder towards a deranged frenzy thinking that the blows might somehow free me from the breathless stagnation I was wading through. I locked up completely several times unable to speak in front of my classes. Something like a panic attack. Not the heavy breathing and heart racing feeling exactly, but long physically painful silences where my brain jammed and struggled to find every word, where I had to fight hard against my mouth and throat and lungs that defiantly resisted making each sound. One day in the language lab, the state of the art West German cassette equipment bugged during a lesson—yes the machines were marked “Made in West Germany,” in 2010. I had a moment of panic; seized, immobile, pressure jam clogging of the brain, and then dreadful relief. Relief looking out the window over the dull grey mediocrity of the Paris suburbs and the once promising social housing cabbages telling myself the chaos of equipment malfunction didn’t matter because as soon as the course was over I was going to climb up to the top of the building and jump.
This is an example of the gruesomely ridiculous logic of suicidal thinking. Tiny insignificant things, things we have no control over and that aren’t even our fault, come to hurt so badly that our clogged and distorted reasoning, corrupted by pain, tells us that death is the only way to stop hurting. Gruesomely stupid indeed, but in the moment it makes absolute sense.
A year and a half later in January 2012, I was not fully healed but much better. I had limped most of the way back from my most terrible and desperate state. I had recently gotten involved volunteering at my local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and the office director suggested I do the training to become a Family to Family instructor. This training session ended up being a most valuable gift of experience after my bout with depression had convinced me that I no longer knew how to teach well like I had loved doing before; like the day a group of French 18 year-olds got excited talking in English about whether poetry makes anything happen and decided that it can but must adapt to the times and ever changing audiences in order to do so. That old self (moi d’alors) that could run a discussion like that had slumbered invisible and homeless hidden deep inside me for over a year.
Our trainers Sue and Linda were complete strangers at the beginning of the weekend and good friends three days later. Thinking about our interaction over those three days has lead me to an unexpected meditation on generosity and empathy, one of those suprise tangents of an idea that isn’t planned when you begin writing and that wells up along the way. Montaigne taught me it is worthwhile to veer and find out where these paths lead. Sue and Linda did not know specifically what a pleasure teaching had been for me in the past. But even without knowing me they gave me something very specific that I had been missing and needed for a long time. They were there sacrificing an entire weekend away from home and family, giving away their time and energy running through 30 exhausting hours of emotionally exacting course material. They were passing along information and technique that we trainees took back to our homes across the state and used to help hundreds of people hurting and looking for solace to calm their pain. Sue and Linda shared their own sadness and vulnerability telling of tremendous loss in the face of mental illness, but their sense of loss was tempered throughout by the example of hope they showed in their actions, their patient and loving strength in confronting hardship, and an implicit assurance that life was not over and that joy was still possible, a joy they exemplified in the abundant flow of humor in their absolutely hilarious banter all weekend.
There is a fascinating relationship here between general and more specific forms of generosity. Sue and Linda made their general disposition towards the world one of giving, and in doing so, they hit upon a very specific need that was crucial to my recovery. I tend to think that understanding what a person is going through needs to proceed acts of kindness, that we have to know someone’s situation before can do unto them, that empathy makes generosity possible. I wonder presently about the value of reversing these terms and exploring the idea that generosity makes empathy possible. We may not understand precisely what people are needing, but by adopting a general disposition of kindness and giving away our time, our resources, our energy, we might hit the mark anyway. Empathy is a wonderful thing. Maybe though it isn’t always a necessary part of helping others. An act of kindness might be the exact response someone else longs for even if we don’t know the details of that longing before we make the gesture. Or it might be a bridge into a more intimate and detailed understanding where empathy can take root. You may invite me for dinner, and while talking during our meal, we may stumble together onto the solution for a problem that’s been plaguing me for months.
Sue and Linda gave me the opportunity to present part of a practice lecture on our first day of training. When I stood up, a little nervous, and began to read, I discovered, with delight, that I could still project my voice like I had in front of a classroom. The old aspiring educator roused and steered up slowly to dock in the forefront of my mind. A refreshing light penetrated the hall dimmed by dreary silence for so long. The subtle possibility for banquet renewed and stirred up into my words. And as I came to the end of my section and reminded my fellow trainees that they had not caused the battles raging in the minds of their family members, an older, better version of me, that I’d once abandoned and left for dead, sat again welcomed and laughing at the head of the table. With their dedication to a cause and general disposition towards kindness, Sue and Linda had helped me recover the teacher I wanted to be.