One time in college, my roommates admitted to each other that they’d thought (separately) about killing someone. They’d fantasized about how to do it, wondered if they could get away with it.
I was surprised. It’s not that I worried Stephanie or Nina would kill me in my sleep (even though I wasn’t tidiest roommate). But I’d never thought about killing someone. Instead, I’d always imagined getting accused of a crime I didn’t commit. I could easily picture the cops nudging me toward a confession. When I thought about it, did I really remember everything that had happened last Saturday night? No, I would concede tearfully, I did not.
Empathy is a weird thing (Colin’s great article in the Used Furniture Review started me thinking about it). In general, I’m a fan. It’s why I write fiction. It’s more or less the meaning of life, I guess. But too much and you’re totally dysfunctional. If a surgeon really empathized with her patients, she wouldn’t be able to operate. Parents have to remind themselves that they are Not Their Children if they want to play the role of grownup on the first day of kindergarten.
Which side of the empathy fence you fall on probably says something about you, although I’m not sure what. A while ago someone posted an Onion story on Facebook: “Middle-Aged Woman Angrily Demanding Price Check OnRice Pudding Was Once Carefree Youth, Onlookers Speculate.” The comments were along the lines of “Right? I hate people like that!”
But I was overwhelmed with feelings of There But For The Grace Of Well-Labeled Pudding Go I.
|About three bucks.|
The realization always hits hard. Not only are you doing something you abhor, you’re also losing your right to complain about other people who do that thing. And I consider the Right To Complain the other meaning of life.
People often call my organization and ask if they can send us poems, even though we don’t publish poetry or fiction. We explain politely, hang up the phone and get our panties in a self-righteous bunch: Why would you submit poetry to a magazine you’d never read? A magazine whose TABLE OF CONTENTS you clearly hadn’t even skimmed?
That’s an extreme, but once I submitted fiction to a contest that was only taking poetry that year. When the very nice editor (whom I knew! even worse!) explained as much, I was so embarrassed I wanted to sink into a pile of composted pages of my own novel.
The other day, Bronwyn told me about a story she read in which a young man took a walk through the impoverished streets of India** and closely observed said poverty and his own sad feelings about it. End of story. The worst, first-world-uses-third-world-to-process-its-pain-while-enjoying-bright-colors stuff you can imagine (although, ironically, it was spawned by an attempt at empathy).
|Holi celebration. These people may or may not be poor.|
Then Bronwyn paused. “I’m pretty sure I’ve written that story before.”
“Me too,” I admitted. “Just substitute Malaysia and throw in some cats.”
I’ve also spoken in a mildly hysterical voice to my share of customer service reps. I’m almost always the person who stands in the middle of a crowded airport terminal staring at the arrival/departure screen as foot traffic stumbles around me. I’ve frequently become the queen of TMI (see: this blog, and my recent conversation about constipation with Nicole). And I spend a lot of my days worrying that I’ll become all sorts of variations of the rice pudding lady; I’m haunted by dozens of Ghosts of Christmas Future. The person who doesn’t take care of her toenails? The person who eventually decides the Republicans have a point? The bitter woman who never realized her dreams of [fill in the blank]? I hope that simply wanting to stave off That Person-ness will perform a kind of alchemy, but I’m not sure it’s that easy.
Maybe the best we can do is empathize with other people as they become That Person. So I want to know: Which person are you?
*At least, this was my theory until I took a cab ride with a driver who practically came to a standstill on the empty 110 North to check out an accident on the 110 South. So another possibility is that most people don’t rubberneck, and that one cab driver ruins it for everyone.
**Country and mode of transportation have been changed to protect the author, whoever he was.