A Fatal Capacity For Feeling

| January 3, 2014 | 3 Comments

“Compassion is sometimes the fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.” Frederick Buechner

photo credit: alexis mire via photopin cc

photo credit: alexis mire via photopin cc

Sometimes, empathy hurts.

Not in an “Oh, I feel bad for you” kind of way, but in a crushing, nihilistic kind of way. Sometimes, if you open yourself to the reality that everyone around you is struggling with something, that people are often so much more vulnerable than they are willing to admit to, that horrible things happen for no good reason, you are also opening yourself to a lot of doubt. A lot of hopelessness. How do you reconcile yourself to your own smallness, to the fact that there is so, so much you cannot fix?

“This sadness is not mine. It is the sadness of old people who can no longer climb stairs, the sadness of the child who cannot speak, the sadness of the man raging against his own helplessness, the sadness of this retard spring feeding upon my dead, the sadness of the woman who can’t seduce her husband any more, the sadness of the days that can’t abide, the sadness of the girl devoured by the light of the north. This sadness is not mine, but all the same, I can’t get rid of it.” —Doina Ioanid

People often talk about bearing each other’s burdens. They make it sound much easier than it is. They never tell you how terrifying it is to try to stare down somebody else’s proverbial demons in addition to your own. Theory of mind is one thing—it’s hard enough to accept that there are seven billion other lives happening concurrently with yours—but the idea that even within your own small circle of influence, there are a thousand things you cannot change can be paralyzing.

But at the same time, there’s nothing noble in allowing yourself to become crippled by the experiences of others.  It took me a long time to learn this.  Sometimes I still forget.  Sometimes, I feel incredibly guilty for how fortunate I’ve been. Sometimes, the sensation of cold fear for someone I love still knocks me flat.

Sometimes the feeling applies to people whom I’ve never met, to humanity as a whole. Things scare me. I often believe that, as a society, we are far too desensitized. But sometimes, I wonder if there’s really an alternative, if it’s even possible to really empathize with other people’s suffering without being sucked into the overwhelming chaos of it all and ceasing to function.

“He had an affinity with pain. If he couldn’t cure it, he took it on… he couldn’t stand the thought of others being left alone with the same terror.” —Colum McCann

As much as I’d like to, I can’t save the world. I know that. But wallowing in guilt for my privilege and well-being doesn’t do anybody any good. Obsessing over the reality that the problems with which I have struggled are still hurting others doesn’t either. Making myself miserable doesn’t make anybody else any happier.

So the question I’m left with is how to mediate empathy and functionality. How to feel others’ pain without being defeated by it. It’s not always a question I can answer for myself, so I won’t try to leave you with any hollow words of wisdom. What I will say is this: I used to think that hope was mostly a nice name for pipe dreams, that people who were foolish enough to have hope for the world were too afraid to face the truth. (Necessity is the mother of invention after all.) But giving up is pretty damn cowardly too, I’ve realized. It’s one thing to look an ugly reality in the face and resign yourself to it; it’s another to look at the ugly reality, pit it against whatever beauty you can find in its midst and fight back without knowing what will happen next.

I was wrong about hope. Real hope doesn’t mean burying your head in the sand. It doesn’t mean being ignorant; it means being mindfully brave, brave beyond belief. And maybe that is foolish. But not nearly as foolish as refusing to try.

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Category: featured, Philosophy and Religion, Social Activism

Emily Hurd

About the Author ()

Emily is a special education major from a tiny town in southern Pennsylvania. She's a firm believer in the virtues of art-making, rambling discussion, and consuming excessive amounts of both coffee and tea. Her other interests include reading and writing poetry, poking around in abandoned houses, and procrastinating indefinitely. Her proudest moment involved replacing the word "oil" on construction signs with "fish" so that the signs in question read "fresh fish and chips."

Comments (3)

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  1. Emily Hurd Emily Hurd says:

    Thank you both so much. I was a little nervous about being able to hit the right notes with this piece. It was a hard subject to write about without while trying to a) avoid coming across as self-congratulatory and martyred, and b) strike a balance in terms of tone–to present a genuine struggle without being too bleak or too falsely cheery. So the positive feedback is wonderfully welcome.

  2. Jeff Fox says:

    As usual, I forgot that I shouldn’t read your stuff in public. This was very emotionally charged for me, because I’ve had some of those feelings before. I appreciate you expressing it as thoughtfully as you have, and more thoughtfully than I could have.

  3. Rhiannon Pabich Rhiannon Pabich says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. This is something I’ve been struggling with myself, and I’m slowly (slowly, slowly) learning how to listen to others’ pain without necessarily absorbing it. I read somewhere that the airplane instruction of putting on your own oxygen mask before you can assist others can be applied to the balance of self-care and care for others.

    Beautiful post.

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