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Who deserves empathy?


As I was helping Sophie pull on a shirt, I saw it: a bit of blood on her thumb.


"Honey, what happened?" I crooned, holding up the finger, already feeling a pang of empathy.


When she glanced at the blood, her face transformed into a terrified pout. As a deep sob erupted from her chest, she burrowed her face into my shoulder to cry. I can usually tell when she is crying for dramatic effect, or if the tears are proceeding from real pain. And these cries were certainly authentic, although heart-wrenching enough that I knew it wasn't just about the cut, as that small amount of blood belied a humbler origin than her cries implied. I kissed her thumb at least a dozen times, but she kept crying. Strangely, I soon found another spot of blood on her hand. Suddenly, with a laugh, I saw its origin:


"Sophie, look," I said, showing her my finger. "It's me who's bleeding, not you."


Her startled gaze was followed by genuine confusion. She glanced around as if asking: then why am I crying? George and I laughed, but I continued to hold her. She seemed not to know what to do with the genuine sadness left behind. The episode was comical, but it let linger a number of questions that I've been pondering since.


Like: where does one store a genuine pain if its validity-conferring signifier vanishes? Children are shocked into the world of language when the mother or father names a reason for their tears, usually "hungry," "tired," or "wanting to be held." These reasons explain the behavior and guide future responses: if the child stops crying after feeding, then chances are "cries when hungry" will prompt a feeding next time.


These "explanations" —once useful guides for the parents, and eventually the child when she learns to name her needs—become unconsciously identified with "justifications." What can be explained can be justified, and what remains inexplicable remains outside the realm of social justification. The signifier, a necessary mediation between me and the world, becomes a prison of narrow justification. I am subjected always to the logic of the outward gaze: can society accept this excess love, this excess pain or joy, this excess unnameable me?


As a child grows and manifold pains accumulate, a tantrum is often just a vessel for larger pains to hitch a ride. Anyone with a toddler knows the severity of an issue that may prompt a meltdown: perhaps a broken crayon, a mis-heard word, the very appearance of broccoli on the dinner plate. When a meltdown of this calibre occurs, I often become indignant. How dare she act as if I slapped her across the face when my crime was simply to make a delicious dinner that she doesn't like? And when I already omitted onions and pepper and all kinds of other things she doesn't like? And when other hungry children would be overjoyed to eat such a meal? And when she happily ate this same meal last week? (if you can't tell, picky eating is our biggest parenting challenge these days). In these moments, no matter how much "pain" she expresses, I dismiss her feelings as unworthy of empathy. Whatever emotion she feels is not justified by the "reality" of the situation.


Unjustified Pain


When I stop to think of my impatience with some of her pains and my immediate empathy for others, I sense an uncomfortable truth: perhaps pain is pain, whether or not it can attach itself to a valid social signifier.


I am reminded of certain studies in which participants' brains are stimulated in such a way as to evoke profound sadness. This is the purest sadness we can imagine, but when participants are asked how they feel and why, they will not simply say, "I am sad." Rather, they will conjure up all sorts of specific and valid reasons for their sadness: an unfulfilling career, fear of dying alone, a disappointing childhood.


And I am reminded too of an article I read long ago of a woman who couldn't cry at (or after) her mother's funeral, even though she loved her. Six months later, when her dog died, her grief stretched far outside the bounds of "normal" mourning for a pet. She surmised that her grief for her mother needed a safer, smaller outlet to even make itself known (it's also possible to genuinely mourn the death of a pet more than the death of a human loved one, for various reasons that are not unjustified).


Pain is a protean force, intruding in unfit places, incarnating in any language made available—even in the silent grammar of physical symptoms, unlikely behavior, or misplaced grief or anger. Perhaps a person carrying socially unjustified pain may even unconsciously seek danger, heartbreak, or tragedy to find an acceptable vessel for that suffering. If such pain cannot be translated successfully into the social sphere, it won't merit the empathy and connection that is vital to human healing.


Tightly narrowed by social languages, the one true life festers in un-sounding relief, looking to hitch a ride on any experience that may carry the blind body into the world of verbal justification.


Unmerited Joy


I have written elsewhere that joy flows as an ever-present strain just beneath the surface of life, persistent as blood through the veins. This joy isn't exactly a feeling-state, but rather a great sea of undiminished peace beneath all bodily feelings— what the apostle Paul calls "the peace that passeth all understanding" or what Buddhists call "causeless joy."


But you may rightly wonder why such joy, if ever-present, is not ever-accessible. Lately, I've been pondering the same, and I believe the reason overlaps with the justification of pain. Could it be that this ever-present joy is just waiting for me to believe that this moment is worthy of its receipt? For joy is also a socially mediated experience. If you are stuck in an undesirable experience— let's say in line at the DMV, or cramming for a calculus exam— you are unlikely to let swing open the doors of your heart, receiving the joy you already are. If you work at a low-paying job with a collection of grimly resigned colleagues, a boundless peace and heightless joy would even register as a mockery of your shared situation. Two obligatory clarifications: first, I stand by this radical claim that we can all access uncaused joy, but I am equally invested in changing the world so such access isn't so damn hard, and I believe social and political change can help express this fundamental unity. Second, I chose examples of banality rather than intense physical or emotional pain, because wading through such suffering with presence is possible, but incredibly difficult. Some say that enlightened people—and perhaps even experienced meditators— can switch off their pain responses (beginning meditators can lower pain levels too), but for most of us, maintaining connection with such vast inner peace is quite a difficult task.


But these necessary ethical matters— these structural changes— have nothing to do with feeling-states. Social justice does not want your undiminished rage, but your consistent action. Your partner does not want your perpetual state of being-in-love, but your continuous desire to sacrifice and improve. Feelings are merely guideposts, urging us towards specifics kinds of actions. No reality requires that a particular emotion accompany that reality. Knowing this opens a gap between outer expectation and inner truth: in this gap, freedom.


"A question of comfort:" I wrote in this essay. "we wander lifetimes with our faces tilted far from the sun, flinching from the light that bathes us, the love that laps at our feet. A question of safety, too: Is this moment wide enough to hold me? Am I welcome between the walls of my own bones?"


To answer "yes" in a final exhaled breath is to end suffering, to begin reality.


Use Your Words


While I was writing this essay, Sophie had another meltdown. She is usually even-tempered, but she's had an exceptionally rough weekend. I tried to help her breathe, and then used the most common catch-phrase shared from parents to preschool teachers: use your words.


I realized in that moment this problem of translation. Yes, words are lifeboats thrown over a sea of distant bodies and unknown meanings— necessary to keep us afloat in the social world, to beg for a hand or a hug or a mug of tea. But what if she can find no words for her feelings? Can I still honor those unnameable movements, or will I wait for her larger pain to hitch a ride on another apparent drop of blood? Will I wait for her pain to be justified?


Another discomfiting thought: I know that given a widening context of wisdom, each of my sadnesses are equally unjustified. There is no difference in kind between Sophie's despair at finding onions in her buckwheat and my despair over being forced to re-home my cat. Both are temporary and contingent sadnesses— given time and perspective, all feelings pass like a light flickered out. But how I crave another person's empathy while these feelings play out. Justified or not, I would like to be held, understood, carried.


Feelings are the original tautologies. Self referential, they mean only themselves. I said they could be guides— true, but guides that point inwards, not outwards. You may fall in love with someone, awed at the reality that "I have never felt like this before," as if you had stumbled into a barely-glimpsed, now fully-known light. Perhaps these feelings shed light on your inner landscape, but they do not mean anything in themselves. They certainly do not mean that you must be in a romantic relationship with that person, or that they will feel the same way. Feelings cannot interpret themselves, as interpretation requires a subject that gives space and language to these entities. But our culture assumes they do, so you assume these feelings convey that this person may be "the one." Luckily the feelings are reciprocated enough to begin a relationship, but after a few years, these feelings fade. You wonder if they were ever real to begin with. "You have every right to be angry," a friend may console you, when you discover that this partner had cheated on you. But perhaps you are surprised to feel only relief, as you had been hoping to break up with them for awhile, and couldn't find the right justification. After a few weeks, you begin feeling happier. Maybe that person was limiting you, you surmise. Maybe freedom is what you need. But there could be other interpretations, ones that are just as valid but wholly different. Interpretations and feelings are not naturally linked, but are paired by you, the experiencing subject.


So, feelings are not "valid" because they are justified by the events we attach to them. They are valid because they simply are, and perhaps cannot be otherwise (though I can let unfriendly emotions go, when I am ready, and welcome feelings that are a bit more helpful, if I can). In this vein, perhaps the question of "deserving" empathy has misled the conversation. No one "deserves" anything— not the good, not the bad, not the judgement nor the empathy— because an action or intention is never equal to its consequence.


Can treat Sophie's pain as equally valid regardless of the apparent cause? This has nothing to with teaching and disciplining, which I must continue, regardless of her feelings. But I know that I can teach and discipline while not discounting a single genuine expression of pain, empathy being free to pair with both punishment and reward.


Perhaps empathy's work is simply this: that it testifies to our entanglement, body and mind, and it carries us past identification with the feeling that has trapped us. What another carries, I must carry too. And my submission to empathy's carrying-together loosens the mind's hold on such slippery feelings-states. The more hands that hold a feeling— pain or joy— the more tenuous appears the body's links to this foreign entity. If I can sense your pain, I can triangulate its objecthood apart from you: yes, I see it too. I see it, and I see you, and you are not the same. "Ah," says the suffering one. Delivered from identification, you may ask at last: "are we ready?" Together we relieve a sigh, unclenching our grips, saying goodbye. Peace, then, pervades: the peace that holds all feelings as One because it cannot cling to a single one.


Note: Sophie is the false name I've used for my daughter since the start of my 100 days project.







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