Empathy and the Dark Places

“I turned to the wilderness really, not to Mr. Kurtz, who, I was ready to admit, was as good as buried. And for a moment it seemed to me as if I also was buried in a vast grave full of unspeakable secrets. I felt an intolerable weight oppressing my breast, the smell of the damp earth, the unseen presence of victorious corruption, the darkness of an impenetrable night.”  Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

I’m getting to the heart of my novel now. Anguish is palpable. Bad things are happening. As I creep through their psyches, my characters are becoming more real. Their senses, their emotions, their reactions are all in my head now. I had to take a break from writing last night. I was exhausted and a little weepy. The only difference in empathy between them and real people is that I can walk away from these novel characters, comforted in the knowledge that they WILL work out their issues eventually.

It has taken a long time for me to master the skill of empathetic detachment and I still falter at times. For years, while fighting my own depressive nature and digging out from the messes of my own making, being empathetic nearly crushed me. I couldn’t hear a problem or read a tragic story without taking it all in. I wouldn’t leave an animal shelter without tears or a pet. I wouldn’t pass by a panhandler or a jar for a cause without contributing. It would weigh on my shoulders – all the conflict and misery and anxiety, as if it were my own. I would cry for them, walking out into the world with a cloud over my head, as if it all belonged to me.

To be sensitive and empathetic is to crawl inside someone else’s life and imagine it all through their eyes, without the amelioration of their experiences, their comfort level, their sensibilities. You take on their troubles completely unfiltered, without the benefit of understanding the path that got them there. It is piercing and exhausting. I would put my all into providing words of comfort, encouragement, tapping into every resource and option I could think of, because that was my nature, whilst they would turn around and do whatever was in their nature to do. It was frustrating and debilitating. I wondered how anyone could be a therapist or grief counselor or teacher, without losing their sense of self.

There is no middle ground in my learning processes. I often stopped being friends with people who were always in crisis. Despite the guilt and my embarrassment at being such a fair weather friend, it was so much easier. I felt like I could breathe. There were people who listened to my dramas, my fears and my grief, but I never stayed long in those places (the upside of being moody) and when I did, they would remind me it was time to move along. Ofttimes I became bored with my own issues and that was a signal that what hooked me, needed to be fixed or abandoned.

There are some amazing people in the trenches, dealing with poverty and natural disaster, hearing stories every day that would rip a person’s heart in two. I protect my heart now. I am no good to anyone if I fall apart – no good to anyone if I am constantly traumatized. I know there are horrors in the world. I do not need the proof. I need an actionable item – at a safe distance. Ofttimes I feel like a coward, but better that, than a weeping, depressed and paralyzed human. I would barely be able to help myself, much less anyone else.

These days I have people in my life with big troubles. I am judicious in my time with them, so that I am not overwhelmed by those feelings or try to “fix” things for them. Sometimes I feel ungenerous of spirit, but I am no good to them or anyone, if I take on their burdens as my own. I can listen and be supportive, but I need to let them carry their own burdens, make their own mistakes, find their own way out. I’m not a crutch or a light to show the way, I am merely a voice in the darkness that says you are not alone.

19 Comments on “Empathy and the Dark Places

  1. Your new full time occupation will be a challenge. Not just for you and your sanity but also for your family who have to live with you when your writing puts you in a funk. How do other professional writers separate the two worlds and walk away from their computers with a clear mind?

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    • I want to answer facetiously and say they probably drink a lot, but my guess is it’s in that challenging word “balance”. Movement helped a lot – I went and did some yoga when I started getting too wrapped up in things. People that I love are funny, kind people, too, so just interacting and getting out of my own head helps.

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  2. lovely. Reminds me of Rowling’s speech on the benefits of failure where she spoke about being amnesty international and how feeling what others are going through enriches one’s imagination so they can be better writers. Hope your nanowrimo is going well.

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  3. “I often stopped being friends with people who were always in crisis. ” I feel the same way. I think this is a sign of growth. In our 20’s it was cool to obsess over tragedies big & small, but as we get older and have more responsibilities, we either gain perspective or flounder. I don’t have patience for energy vampires anymore. I can’t be a good mom, good advocate, good friend if I’ve exhausted myself listening to the 500th rendition of “why my life sucks” by someone who isn’t taking care of themselves, or who refuses to see the beauty that surrounds them. And I’ve learned that true strength comes from holding joy like a banner through a bloody battle with the darkness, not wallowing in the muck of self pity.

    Thanks for sharing this. It’s exactly what I’ve been thinking about this week. And it makes me grateful for the people who do bring joy to others despite their own hardships.

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    • Thanks for reading and commenting. I’m a big fan of taking care of one’s backyard first, before trying to clean up someone else’s – the tried and true “put on your own oxygen mask first” set of instructions.

      “Energy vampire” is a good way of describing someone of endless angst. There is also the “hit and run” drama artists. They call you up in major crisis, unload all their misery – you feel flattered that they would come to you for help. You listen, you advise, you comfort. Then you don’t hear from them again, until finally you call them up and say “Hey, what happened with that crisis?” They say “oh, it was nothing. Now blah, blah, blah is going on.” That’s when you realize that when they have a crisis, they call up you and 450 of their closest friends. They tap you out and then move onto the next number on the list.

      You’re right about how maturity and having more responsibilities really lowers the tolerance for this kind of behavior. I’m all about low drama – these days, it happens mostly on paper and I’m okay with that!

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  4. The last paragraph says it all. It’s a good way to be, I think.

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    • I think some people can handle being more than that and want to, but I think it’s important for me to recognize what my limitations are in order for me to be okay.

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  5. As a person often in crisis I wanted to let you know that I gain strength and comfort not so much from those who try to “fix” (and goodness knows your post resonates with me because I am a fixer), but from those who have the fortitude, love and compassion to simply “be” with me a while. Acknowledge that life can be hard, but that its hardship takes nothing away from its value. You can’t take the hard things away from my life, as I cannot from yours. But you can let me know that I am not alone, and that things won’t always seem so hard. And then, there’s your smile – that’s always going to help. It also matters a lot to me that those people who sit with me can leave and go to their lives without taking pain with them… otherwise I feel guilt!

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      • Oh no… you said what my heart feels… I’m just lucky to live at both ends. In the mess of life, and on the outskirts of others’ messes wishing I could do more than simply sit!

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        • But you pointed out the great value in sitting and being present with someone who is struggling. I’ve been thinking about your comment a great deal because there is value in listening and not necessarily responding with the “answer”. How often do we say things out loud to someone and suddenly a different perspective occurs to us? Perhaps that is a blog post for the future!

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  6. …and this is why it really takes courage for one to empathizes
    …and I find it really courageous too that you are so in touch with your emotions. It makes everything more real, more realistic
    …and thank you for letting me know I am not alone. =>

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