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.