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(Update: Blogger hasn't fixed its problem with the "adult warning". Will go back to posting at my WordPress blog)

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

True empathy

Years ago I got to talking with a woman on the train, who recognised me from TV (you didn't know I was on TV, did you?)  We became acquaintances, sharing anecdotes about our lives, our children, our jobs.  Sometimes we gave each other lifts home from the station.

I always rather envied them.  They were well off.  They went every year on weeks-long overseas holidays to France and Italy and Switzerland.  They went to opera and ballet.  They did things.  But then, about a year ago, I saw her and her  husband in the station car park. He looked ill.  They told me that he had lung cancer, not because he'd smoked, but because he'd worked, decades ago, in an office of smokers, in the days before people were forced to go outside to smoke.  Just a few months ago, on another meeting, they remained upbeat.  The treatments were working.  Alan was getting better.

Yesterday I met her in the supermarket.  I knew at once what had happened.  You could see it in the way her body slumped, in the terrible grief in her stance, in her eyes.  I didn't even have to ask what.  I knew.  How long ago, I asked.  A month, was the answer.  Then a burst of courage.  Well, I must keep going.  Nice to meet you, Nick.

I know what grief feels like.  And I don't believe until you have experienced grief yourself that you can fully understand the grief of others.  Perhaps we humans can only really get the suffering of others when we have suffered ourselves.   When you have nursed your sick child through the night you will never again be dismissive of other parents' worries about their own children.  When your marriage has been under strain, you will know and understand what others are going through when theirs is similarly afflicted.  And when someone else suffers intense and incredible grief, you will be able to understand fully only if you have lost loved ones yourself.

As I spoke to her, I felt the lump in my throat and the unshed tears in my eyes.  But I wondered afterwards whether the grief I felt was just a memory of my own, in other words was selfish (even narcissistic) or whether I was truly feeling for her.

Who knows?  It's all too easy to deceive yourself, and to fancy yourself to be a better person than you are. And yet I am unable to shake the memory of that grief-ravaged face and the cringing posture; body and soul bending away from the blows of life and the horror of death.  Perhaps the only mechanism our minds have to have insight into the minds and characters of others and into their feelings and sufferings is our own mind and our own memories of those we loved and lost and what we felt.  Maybe that is the only way humans can see into the soul of other humans.

What's the saying?  Hope for the best, be prepared for the worst?  The best, surely,  is a compassionate and empathetic insight into the hearts and souls of others.  The worst is to say, "well, when I ..."  We humans are surely a mixture of both, neither unalloyed compassion nor unbridled selfishness.  But there are times when I wish it were not so.

1 comment:

Hunter said...

I'm not sure I agree with you, although I haven't really thought specifically about empathy and its place in our psychological toolbox. I suspect it's rather part of that panoply of characteristics that enable -- or underlie -- sociality, and we are social animals, first and foremost. There are examples throughout the animal kingdom of this sort of behavior, from your dog or cat trying to comfort you when you're hurting to the way chimpanzees gather to console a mother whose infant has died.

So I'm not convinced we have to have felt grief to empathize with the grieving. I suspect the operative factor is not having experienced similar feelings, but an innate response to distress.