Like it seems everyone else, I have been musing on the loud and sudden screams at President Obama wanting his Supreme Court nominee to have understanding and empathy among other traits. It’s personal as well as political in this house.
My middle son is empathetic. From his early childhood, I recognized how he feels the pleasures and agonies of others. In a culture that values rugged decisiveness, that can have mixed results.
Sadly to a parent, he can be upset by things that others would feel are simply not their problem, rather someone else’s. Yet, that same empathy is a sine qua non for deep friendship. Punching a suffering buddy in the biceps and telling him to gut it out doesn’t cut it.
Rather than dissuade him from feeling for others, I have tried to foster that behavior. I have told many that from his childhood he has been where mature and emotionally realized adults should be as they develop. Unlike most people, he doesn’t have to slowly grow into sensitivity and consideration exclusively from his own misfortunes. Along the way, he can be more easily hurt and elated.
As unusual as real empathy is, the empath has a secure place in fiction, particular science fiction and futurism. One that most of us have seen is Counselor Troi of Star Trek. She has a rich emotional and intellectual life because of her ability, but she also feel more pains and pleasures from others.
For me, it was a slow awareness of the obvious. I feel my son’s empathy because I too am empathetic.
My sister remarked that this had long been obvious. My beloved maternal grandfather seemed to have a particularly fondness for me among the grandchildren as a result. He too was aware of, felt for and cared about others beyond the logical and measurable.
With that belated realization in mind, I found some newly recast memories. For one, a big one, among my acquaintances, I have always been uncomfortable with slapstick. The pratfall in the opening of the 1960s Dick Van Dyke Show made me squirm. I was positively put off by the eye-gouging of The Three Stooges. Intellectually, I knew those were actors, but I projected into the sufferers. Likewise, in 60s and 70s comedies, the frequent humiliation of the characters was all too much.
With local, touchable humans, I had a reputation as sensitive. I figured I was sympathetic, which is what I learned in church after all. Yet, to observers, I now hear that it was considerably beyond sympathy. It was all I knew.
People can and do function without empathy. After all, it can literally and figuratively be quite a pain. On the other hand, empathetic types can and do learn to deal with their extra and deeper feelings.