On Empathy

| November 15, 2012 | 0 Comments

I had never noticed how dark the Longwood area gets at night. The space between street lamps is vast, and it’s remarkably easy to disappear as soon as you step out from beneath their glow.

Safe in the light of the buildings that line the Riverway, we waited to cross over to the bridge leading back to South Campus. A woman came up next to us and turned to smile our way before jaywalking across the street. I noticed the flowers that decorated her hat and thought the smile all the more genuine because of them. As she briskly walked, I made some stupid comment about how “gutsy” she was. She was familiar with the area too, and she walked with a purpose that reflected that.

We followed suit a few seconds later when it seemed safer. I immediately understood the need to walk so quickly. The road was wide, and the cars approaching from both directions seemed to appear out of the nothingness between lampposts in the same way walking figures did.

We reached the sidewalk, but she kept moving and the cars kept materializing. When the woman with the flowers on her hat was struck, it was both the longest moment of my life and the briefest.

I was made acutely aware of my weaknesses as others were able to put aside the their own trauma to help. I still can’t wrap my head around the ability of the EMTs to spend their days doing just that. As I stood trembling, I watched them move with unparalleled confidence and was immensely grateful for their strength. I wondered about the self-preservation strategies they must employ to function in this way.

One of the most alarming things about watching such a seemingly unnatural scene unfold is the ease with which it occurs, especially when compared to the deliberate actions you see others complete each day. When it comes to crossing the street, for instance, it’s as if my years in the city becoming accustomed to the coexistence of pedestrians and drivers never occurred. My stomach drops when I watch people cross without the walk signal lit to reassure me. How long will it be before this woman is able to complete this act that seems so mundane to many?

There’s so much more to untangle from a mess of memories, but I know that my understanding of human empathy has been altered. When I’m not able to distract myself, I have trouble keeping my mind from inventing a connection to this woman I know next to nothing about. I’ve morbidly put each of my loved ones in her place only to find myself rendered inconsolable by the thought. I know this woman will be healthy again in time, but I share her pain and grieve the incident daily.

Though the power of empathy is profound, it isn’t limitless. Because of my own emotional needs, I know that this memory will become less vivid and that I will stop recalling the incident so frequently. Writing this post was, in some ways, a selfish act of catharsis. I will too soon be absorbed in the same stresses that seem so frivolous to me right now from tests to relationships to life after college. Though humans have an enormous capacity for empathy, it seems as if we have to employ our own self-preservation strategies. I will be exercising more caution on the streets. I won’t forget. But at the end of the day we do what we can, revert back to what we know, and turn over a new page.

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Category: featured, Philosophy and Religion

About the Author ()

Allie is a senior studying Art History in CAS and Public Relations in COM. She likes getting lost in museums, getting lost in foreign cities, getting lost in familiar cities, and wandering in a more general sense. For more rambling, follow her Twitter alter-ego: @Alliewith2ls.

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