I am not what you would call an overly empathetic person. I’m not a narcissist or sociopath or anything, I do have some empathy, but it is nowhere near my top ten strongest skills. Because of this, I am never the one that people come to for advice on the little things, or if they just need to whine. Chances are, I’ll just tell ‘em to “Suck it up camper,” or look at them with a blank stare until they assume I’ve fallen into a coma and walk away. It is truly amazing how long some people will continue talking once you’ve adopted this look.
It’s not that I’m intentionally trying to be rude, I do try to pay attention and care. It’s just that more often than not, I lack the capacity to give a shit, and there is nothing more disingenuous than someone trying to care about something that they don’t. There is a silver lining to this though, I’m the one that people come to when there is a major decision that needs to be made. When they know that they’re going to get emotional talking about it, and need an unemotional response. I’m that person, because I can sit and watch the person in front of me getting really upset about something and still tell them without hesitation that they fucked up and here’s what they need to do to fix it. Or that the situation is fucked up, that sucks, here’s what you need to do to fix it. I have taken friends, coworkers and strangers alike from brink-of-hysteria to focused-with-a-plan. This is what I do with my lack of empathy.
This used to really worry me, and I even brought it up with my therapist thinking that something was really wrong with me. She assured me that I had plenty of things wrong with me, but this wasn’t one of them. In fact, this was quite possibly the coping mechanism that allowed me to survive a childhood with a disabled and abusive mother. However, if I really was concerned, a sure fire way to increase one’s ability to empathize was to read fiction and memoirs. What????? Apparently when reading, you are so immersed in another world that you become accustomed to viewing and feeling things as someone else, which makes you able to see other people’s perspectives in real life, and therefore more empathetic. Or something to that effect.
As I had been reading fiction for years, and it clearly hadn’t helped, I decided that wasn’t the way to go. I have also read a lot of nonfiction history about people and events. While this has definitely made me more liberal, it hasn’t made me more empathetic. Seriously, it’s crazy, the more I study history the more liberal I become. In all of the history that I read, it is the people who are willing to look beyond what is traditional, the people who are willing to fight for the benefit of others, and the people who work the hardest to bring others along with them as they succeed that I admire most. The more I read the less I have time/energy/patience for people who are intolerant and work to subjugate people who are different. Which I guess is a form of empathy, so studying history has worked some.
All that was left, was memoirs, so I’m giving that a try. So far I’ve read about a boy soldier in Africa, a Jew during WWII, a US Iraqi war Veteran, a black boy growing up in the inner city, a holocaust survivor and I just started one about hillbillies. None of these books have made me lose sleep or in all honesty have really even affected me all that much. Empathy level is still clocking in at a steady two – three on a ten point scale. At this point, I’ve kind of given up on increasing my empathy, and look at is as more of a study of human motivation. In that sense, I am fascinated. Seeing how circumstance and background come together to influence the choices that people make and the behaviors that they exhibit. What from the outside looks completely asinine, actually makes perfect sense when looking at the microcosm of their life. As a writer, I can’t get enough. To play off the old saying, give me everybody’s shoes, I want to take them for a walk.
What started out as an experiment in emotion has turned into an intellectual study of human nature. I love it! Therefore, I am officially open to recommendations of good memoirs. No teenage girls though, I got enough whining to last me a while from Anne Frank. Yep. Holding steady at 2-3.