(I wrote this post in a Word doc awhile ago; I think it's still relevant.)
I’ve been thinking about excessive empathy lately, and whether it might be leveraged as an asset, rather than smothered for being a liability. What can one do, what progress can one make, when one is incapacitated by compassion? When one’s only capacity is for grief, of what use can one be?
Related passages from fiction occurred to me, of course. Upon reviewing them I realize they have to do with empathy for one’s specially beloved human, rather than empathy for humanity in general--humanity in the abstract and then frighteningly in the no-longer-abstract. One hears news headlines. One watches a movie character and knows that real people have similarly suffered. So the following passages perhaps only glancingly apply to my own struggles, since I am unespoused. But often a glancing relation is still a telling one.
BBC Sherlock’s John, after a drug overdose:
John holds a hand out, pointedly. And then Sherlock is up and they are leaving. Sherlock is too thin, he's too cold, he's a tower of strength drained completely empty. It could make a grown man cry, this sort of waste, this level of senselessness. Why should a priceless work of art dash itself against the concrete purposefully? The whole story is a tragedy. It could break John's heart if he let it.
But he isn't going to.
wordstrings, Entirely Covered in Your Invisible Name
Original-canon Holmes, during World War I:
It was a calculated war waged against my own mind. My mind was my bitterest foe. My soaringly imaginative, tactically brilliant, ever-practical mind. Had I been able to exchange my brain with that of a half-witted factory girl, during the four years Watson was in France, I should have done so. I should have traded it for a Dorset cow's in an instant. Could I have slipped into a coma entirely, I should have chosen that, save that then I would not have been working every waking moment to end the War quickly.
And God, how desperately I needed to end that bloody War.
At the beginning, I could see everything. Too much. And there the information was, all at my disposal on my brother's desk. Guns. Troops movements. Chemical weaponry. Mustard gas. God in Heaven, it drew and quartered me daily. At the beginning, when I was less strict with myself and allowing flights of vividly pictured deductions, anything could tip my heart into a blind panic. I glimpsed a wire in concert with a coded list, a grain manifest, a series of numerals, and a map on my brother's oak desk and nearly sent myself to the hospital. I knew generally, within thirty miles, perhaps, where my friend was at any given time. My brother saw to that. And according to those seemingly innocuous papers in 1914, he would be dead in a week. The odds were for a simple gunshot wound, but exploding debris was also possible.
Looking up from the mad scratches in his commonplace war journal, Mycroft frowned at me from across the length of his entire office.
I made no answer.
"Sherlock," he said clearly, "I have seen what you have seen, but you have not seen all that I have. In addition, I do not allow myself to actually see it. Stop your mind's eye, and at once."
"How can I help but see it? I've always seen it. All my life," I answered miserably, leaning back against his bookshelves and shoving my hands in my pockets.
"Well, you are through now," my brother commanded, tidying papers. "This is not you staring at carriage tracks in our drive and predicting the events of the next six hours verbatim. I can allow you to know things, to employ your tireless energies on our behalf, but not to see them. Do you mark me? I will retrain your mind myself if I have to. You are Sherlock Holmes, not Cassandra of ancient myth. We shall unravel the work of sixty years."
"I can't. My mind doesn't work that way," I whispered in despair.
"It's going to have to." Rising, my brother approached me and placed a hand on my shoulder. He left it there until I looked back at him, seeing my own eyes in a huge, sagging face of sixty-seven years.
"He should not have done it," I said through a clenched jaw. It was the only time I said it. Ever.
"No, but now he has," Mycroft said softly. "Be logical. You are not getting him back for a period of months or possibly even years. You are thus presented with exactly two options. Either stay as you are and see how long you can live like this before you break--I give it three months, myself, and if the War grows worse as swiftly as I think it will, no longer than two and a half--or stop seeing things. Think them in the abstract, for I need you, but do not see them, petit frère. Please stop seeing them. Try for me."
"All right," I gasped. I had not been aware of how shallowly I was breathing, for I was watching him perish over and over again in a spray of gore and crossfire. The moment I agreed, my brother slid back into his usual distant inertia.
"Good man," he said absently, going back to his desk.
Katie Forsythe, The Presbury Letters
These passages speak of the necessity of closing one’s heart, fortifying the doors against the onslaught of an unrelentingly brutal world, and the immense, hardly bearable anxiety and sorrow that would be engendered in the collision of that brutality with one’s own empathy. No human metaphor-heart can take in all the suffering of humanity, and continue to function.
Or can it?
What if Katie--my trusted pet favorite author, my guru of the ugly sides of love--is not entirely right on this count? What if this metaphor is faulty, or at least does not encompass all possibilities? That is the weakness of all metaphors, of course. Each one is only a lens, and not the thing itself. And the human brain, which is what we are really talking about here, is complex beyond our feeble attempts at description and measurement. So: what if the alternative to closing the door to empathy, and carrying on with trying to fix the mess, is also a viable possibility? What would that look like?
Using “we” to mean “I, and others with a seeming excess of compassion”: we could be in a waiting room where they have the tv news on, and not frantically try to divert our own attention.
What if a significant part of the horror of a horrific thought lies in our own panicked urge to look away, to not let it affect us?
What if we just sat with the reality that the world is brutal and merciless, that many many people are in unbearable pain at any given minute? And that we’re partly to blame? What if we just sat and let that be true? What if that didn’t have to mean us curling up in too much shame and rage and sorrow even to suicide ourselves out of this train wreck?
Would that lead to us taking less, and less effective, action to fix the world? Or more?
Consider: you can see the horrible thing in your mind’s eye, but you don’t have to be in the scene. You can just watch and be still. That’s all you can do in that moment, since it’s your mind’s eye; you’re not really there, able to throw your body in front of the cannon or whatever. And when the mind’s cinema screen flickers to darkness for the time being--perhaps, sometimes, even while it’s still running, if you can get the knack--you can plot ways to make it better.
It also strikes me that the rationally plotted, stiff-upper-lip approach is tied to toxic masculinity. What if I consult some female and/or non-Western heroes? How do they deal with their unbearable feelings? What does "Cassandra of ancient myth" have to say on the matter?
I do recall some tale of Theseus with lamenting women kneeling in the road before his procession, begging him to stop some deadly action. And, in the story, he did. Maybe the mere display of the full force of our distress, in front of the right persons, would be a force for good?
What can one do while in profound distress, other than displaying it? What action, in that moment, can be taken, that might be useful to the hemorrhaging world? Or must one wait until the moment passes, and act while in a calmer state?
Thoughts and fiction recs welcome.