There’s a post on Facebook that many of you will have seen and in some cases reposted on your own timeline as requested by the person who originally wrote it. I don’t know who that was or have it to hand but it goes something like everyone is fighting battles you know nothing about… The message is a good one, encouraging empathy, but you’re only supposed to cut and paste it without changing anything. The irrepressible self-editor in me would have to take out the slightly menacing line if I don’t see your name, I’ll understand (it reminds me of chain letters) because I know as little about what goes on in your head as you do about mine – although that might be about to change.
I decided to come up with something of my own on vulnerability and empathy, purely in my capacity as myself and a human being. I have no further qualifications in this field. (I may be a writer but only as an extension of the above.)
I’ve spent the last week on a big decorating project at home and it’s not done yet. It is physically demanding yet immensely satisfying. Seeing instant results jolts me out of my usual thought patterns, changing even the significance of an empty space: a feared blank page becomes a blank canvas, a fresh start. I’ve had time to reflect on the grand scheme of things. The big picture.
A year ago, a conversation with someone close to me caused me to completely reframe the difficult years of my teens and much of my twenties and feel some compassion and understanding for my younger self. Things suddenly looked very different. But whilst I can reinterpret those chapters of my past and feel better for it, I can’t edit them out. When wrist met razor blade I was 22. It was 1989, before self-harm had become the widespread problem it sadly is today (or if it was, nobody was talking about it). Back then that kind of act was more associated with suicide. I had no intention of killing myself. What was going through my mind? I couldn’t tell you then and I can’t tell you now, other than that I wanted not to feel how I felt. Desperate.
Unlike some writers, you won’t ever hear me joke about opening a vein.
It wasn’t a release or relief of any kind. I made a mess of it, scaring myself shitless. Having to tell the A&E nurses what I’d done (there was no pretending it was an accident) made me feel foolish, humiliated and ashamed. It was a junior doctor friend who sewed me up. I don’t remember anything he said, if he said anything at all, but I remember the look in his eyes. (He went on to become a psychiatrist; I never did it again.) Someone else we knew called me a stupid bitch, not to my face but in my hearing. Of the two, it was the kindness that made me want to cry. Isn’t it always?
Last night I went to a short play at Hornsey Arts Centre called Considering This. I’d booked at the last minute knowing barely anything about it. It’s written and performed by Kate Tiernan and one or two others and the theme is empathy. Switching seats at a table covered in miscellaneous objects, the actors reproduce the words of real people interviewed in a study into cognitive empathy. The male actor’s first exposure to the material was hearing it through an earpiece – his unfiltered emotional response added to the power of the performance. The characters (on this occasion – it varies) were an aid worker, a troubled 18-year-old girl, a graphic designer who believes empathy can be engineered as an aesthetic response and a palliative care nurse.
I think it was the aid worker who said that to empathise is to ‘pause’. To step out of your own concerns and consider the other person’s situation, or at least try, even if it is beyond your experience or imagination. To care, to connect. Something else that came up was the frequent link between empathy and the many types of loss that call for it: loss of life, of love, of health, of shelter and safety. Just when it seems that we are in the grip of a widespread societal empathy deficit, whether we’re talking callous political decisions or the rise of de-humanising practices such as cyber-bullying to give just two examples, something like the reversal in public opinion on the migrant crisis in Europe and the extraordinary relief effort proves that all is not lost.
I was going to talk about how empathy enters into reading and writing but I’ve decided to leave that for a future post called Interior Life Part Two. There’s a Samaritans poster at my local station that tugs at my heart, of a weary-looking middle-aged bloke wearing boxing gear, one of a series featuring people you might be inclined to think of as tough. It says Whatever you’ve done. Whatever life’s done to you…
Whoever wrote that Facebook post was right – you can’t tell any of that from the outside. Best be gentle, just in case.
Please feel free to share any thoughts you have on this.
Hi Isabel I think you are vey brave speaking about an experience publicly like this. I too self harmed , about 38 years ago now. I still have the scars and sadly suffer with depression…..though I don’t self harm anymore. Just to say, it is still a very taboo subject. I love your posts and read avidly! Best wishes and keep up the good work! Jenny
Thank you, Jenny, and sorry it’s taken me a while to respond. You are very brave yourself and I think it is healthy that this kind of subject is somewhat less taboo than before. It’s always going to be painful for those involved to speak of and uncomfortable for others to hear but people have responded with huge, well… empathy! And maybe it will help someone caught in that cycle to see that it didn’t become a habit for me and that you managed to stop. Hope you continue to enjoy the blog and thanks for your appreciation.
Oh Isabel,ain’t it the truth…you have been very strong, and the older one gets you find out out that yes, everyone has trouble. My experience this year has made me a kinder person. My time is getting shorter. We never stop growing though, and I for one,try to be more in tune with my fellow man.
Currently in Zurich with my oldest friend and tomorrow we leave for Venice for five days.
Love to all,Ness. Come and see me soon!
Ness, I was struck by your capacity to empathise without judging from when we met – we talked about all sorts by the pool that summer and it was lovely for me to have the wisdom of someone with more life experience because I’ve missed out on that. I’m so pleased that you are back in Europe enjoying yourself after a difficult year and yes, I really would like to visit you in Montreal sometime!
This is such a courageous and wise post, Isabel. Thank God humans have a conscience and empathy – to whatever degree. No one is completely selfless but at least we try, we want to help and to understand. I hope so anyway. Looking forward to your post on reading and writing and empathy.
Thank you, Fleur. I’m looking forward to writing that post – I have lots of thoughts on the subject both as reader and writer.
Brave and sensitive piece, Isabel, that reminds us of a hard truth that is so easy to forget. Brava.
Thanks, Barry. You’re very kind.
A very brave and thoughtful post, like many others on here. I’m reminded of the debate on university campuses about ‘trigger warnings’ (someone has recently written a book on this) and how readers are sometimes given signposts to guide them away from uncomfortable subjects. This may be a helpful thing in some cases but it may also prevent readers from accessing empathetic works if the avoidance of the subject becomes collective (i.e. removing something from a reading list because it may be uncomfortable to some). Personally, I believe that the novel, because the reading experience is so private, can reach more deeply and resonate much more in a person’s consciousness than any other art form (certainly a narrative art form) so empathetic writing is absolutely vital.
Thanks for another interesting comment, Mike. Personally I am against trigger warnings on books. A lot of people reading this post have commented that it’s good to ‘get it out there’ and since reading is, as you say, a unique way to engage in experiences beyond our own lives, stigmatising difficult subjects reduces others’ capacity to empathise and increases the isolation of those affected. How many times have we each thought ‘Oh, so it’s not just me,’ and felt comforted by that?
Where self-harm is concerned, I have seen it handled with sensitivity and a light touch and I have seen it handled in a gratuitous and voyeuristic way that I found distasteful bordering on offensive.
That hope is so hard to find sometimes. You’re either trapped in the snowglobe feeling gawped at or you’re holding it in your hands and looking in; separate, either way. Public responses have been both affirming and worrying, I think. It’s becoming more and more common for public outpourings to stop one in their tracks and think, yes, there’s hope for us yet. And even as we do that it sharpens the focus on what prompted the response, magnifying the (at the very least) wrongheadedness of the minority, or the powerful. What’s that line about all it taking for evil to succeed? That good men (we should change that to people) do nothing. We can’t begin to understand how widely we affect the people we come into contact with, what a chance comment can to do turn someone away from harm, or indeed towards it. I take my hat off to people who set out to do good things. At the very least, for myself, I try to reserve my own judgement, to not say it if it’s not positive.
I take my hat off to people who are prepared to show a little of themselves, too, so that it might go easier for others who struggle. and we all struggle.
I take my hat off to you, Isabel.
I’m also reminded of Anne Goodwin’s book, Sugar And Snails, which is very astute on related matters.
Thank you for this lovely thoughtful comment, Van. You’re so right about how we can be casually cruel – sometimes without meaning to – or kind, and the difference that makes to other people. I have lived in London over 25 years but it’s only since I took up writing, nearly 7 years ago, that I started engaging more with the people around me, including strangers. Yes, there are people who don’t care about anyone else but what strikes me is how much goodness and humanity there is. And it feels good to talk to the person on the checkout rather than behaving like machines obsessed with machines!
It can’t have been an easy post to write Isabel and I admire you for being so open and honest when many wouldn’t want to share and would blank it out. The more folk talk openly about these issues the more understanding others will be so well done for exposing a painful part of your past.
Thanks, Helen. You’re right, it was scary – I was actually shaking when I pressed ‘publish’ and had no idea how people would react. So I’m really happy that so many have connected with it in different ways. Feels like it was worth it.
As others have commented, a very moving post, Isabel. But I’m not surprised that the comments you’ve received so far have been so supportive. That totally fits with my experience of the writing-blogging community. There can be an undercurrent of vulnerability in many posts I read which attempt to evoke really compassionate comments. I’m hoping, despite your understandable initial anxiety, you’re glad you took the plunge.
Thanks to Van for the mention of my novel which features self-harm from the first chapter. I hope it reads empathically for more people than it alienates, but I am sometimes a bit anxious doing readings of what it might evoke the people in the audience. Mike makes a point about trigger warnings, which we did consider including in this novel, but I tend to agree with you, Isabel, that we shouldn’t be keeping these things hidden.
Thanks, Anne. As I’m sure you gathered from its inclusion on the Sofa, your novel is amongst those which I felt handled this subject with insight and respect, not for kicks. And yes, I am pleased I decided to say what I did. At one point I thought ‘this would be much less risky’ if I took that bit out. I didn’t, because this example from my own life proves the point so strongly – if I was going to write the piece at all, I had to include it.