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.