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.