“Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?” Henry David Thoreau
Empathy. It’s a quality little known to some.
‘Empathetic’ is a personality trait I use regularly to describe myself. That only came to fruition lately though; until I discovered the term “empath” and the article ‘Empath Traits: 22 signs you are a highly sensitive person’ (the link to which I will include in this entry if I can figure out how), I thought of myself as simply an overly sensitive, dare I say it, overly feminine kind of person – the type who has a serious inward battle with myself not to do the same when someone talking to me begins to cry or whom has to reach for a tissue whenever the WaterAid advert comes on. Discovering that it is a recognised and categorised personality characteristic (definitive enough that it can be used to describe a person, not just an aspect of their personality) was a palpible relief for me. I instantly shared the article with a few friends and family members whom I knew would feel the exact same relief that I did. And that they did.
“We’re not alone, its an actual thing!”
If for some reason you’re devoid of a conscience, only just learning the english language or managed to skip that part of school where basic vocabulary was touched upon, here’s the definition of ’empathy’ according to dictionary.com:
It’s the thing that physically tugs at your innards when a loved one is in pain or the driving force that causes you to donate whenever Children In Need is on. In my opinion its one of few qualities that separates us from animals; we civilised folk from the primitive; we nice people from the utter bastards in life. I believe the inability to practice or indeed feel empathy to be, correct me if I’m wrong, a defining trait of a sociopath. So that said, surely its a positive thing – right?
I’m inclined to say no, according to modern day’s standards, not right. Wrong.
Once I discovered what an empath was; I began to realise that we are living in a society that increasingly discourages the existence of such a virtue. It’s unabashedly prevalent in today’s Conservative Government; resonating mostly from the pitiful, loathsome toad that is our Secretary for Working State and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith (you know, the arsehole who looks like what you’d imagine a modern day macabre Humpty Dumpty to look like) and his “it’s the poor’s fault they’re poor” attitude and constant downtreading of the underclass and their rights. And it’s sneakily masquerading in our everyday product advertisement; “don’t pay attention to world events or the struggle of your neighbour; let alone someone suffering on the other side of the world – buy this iphone/laptop/car and tune into the placated white noise that is mass consumerism”. It might as well be written in giant bold capital red letters on the front cover of every newspaper controlled by the Murdoch Empire:
DON’T FEEL SORRY FOR ANYONE. BLAME IMMIGRANTS, HOMOSEXUALS, HIPPIES AND ANYONE WHOM ISN’T WHITE FOR YOUR OWN PERSONAL STRUGGLES.
AND FOR GOD’S SAKE DON’T CONSIDER WHAT THOSE REFUGEES MUST HAVE EXPERIENCED IN ORDER TO HAVE TAKEN THAT PERILOUS, LIFE-THREATENING TRIP ACROSS THE MEDITERRANEAN – JUST BE MAD THAT THEY DID.
It’s an attribute that is more commonly associated with weakness, failure, susceptibility and irritiation rather than the profound kindness, love, compassion and sensitivity that it truly stems from. I know this because I’ve been made to feel that way more in the last 2 years than at any other time in my life.
It was roughly 2 years ago; after a drawn out, very painful and traumatic split from the father of my beautiful son, that I realised being left to my own devices wasn’t necessarily such an unnerving, terrifying and lonesome experience after all. It opened me up literally (sharing custody of our child meant I had newfound free time on my hands) and emotionally (that old
Turned to Russell Brand for guidance.
(I know he’s not everyones cup of tea; he’s certainly a Marmite kind of a guy but if you intend on utilising the comment section of this entry just to tear into him and myself – save it. There is very very little you can say about him that I haven’t already heard and absolutely nothing you can say to make me change my mind or how I feel about him.)
Apart from fantasizing about what it’d be like to be married to him whilst watching ‘The Trews’ (something he’s taken a break from of late but what used to be his YouTube show dedicated to picking apart what is covered in today’s mainstream media – if you’ve not seen it for crying out loud get on it pronto: Russell Brand’s YouTube Channel – The Trews) I realised that his, at times convoluted but nevertheless inspirational and educational witterings, ignited in me a real yearning to know more, learn more, be more. The conclusion he so oftenly reached at the end of his short videos was not to listen to what Fox, CNN, BBC News, Cameron, Murdoch and all other deliverers and creators of evil had to say but to pay attention to and more importantly, live life in harmony with, the very best parts of your human nature; love, kindness, altruism, forgiveness, acceptance, EMPATHY. Thus creating a more tolerant, functional, peaceful society. I know, I know; its a little white-robe -wearing, granola-eating, incense-burning, utopian-“peace and love man”-tastic but its true if you ask me. Be the change you want to see said Gandhi and by gum it makes sense.
And upon deciding that was a bloody good point bloody well made, I thought to myself, ‘what more can I personally do to exercise those aspects of myself and thus help make a more likeable, liveable world?’ From then onwards I started attending and helping organise anti-austerity, anti-Tory, left-wing, pro-democracy protests (something I’ll focus more on I’m sure in future blog entries), donating more to charity and looked further into current events from more trustworthy independent news sites; something I suggest everybody does. And from THEN onwards, mainly from the evil beauty that is FaceBook, I unearthed what appears to be the common mindset of most people of today and that is that if it didn’t happen directly to you, it’s really not your problem or worth your time. In VERY rare cases I’m sure that mantra is indeed a sensible one but I’m of the firm belief that that very attitude is what is contributing to the downfall of humanity and all that makes us pleasant, helpful, amiable human beings.
For me its as simple as, something we very often scold our children with when they improperly interact with other children; ‘how would you like it if that was you?’ Because the reality is that could so easily be you. I try, morbid as it may be, to regularly remind myself that we are all only ever one bout of ill-health, a natural disaster, an overdose, a redundancy, loss of a loved one or a trip of a fuse in the intricate circuit that controls our volatile brain away from being that very person we walk by knelt begging in the street. Or indeed worse. If the answer to that question is ‘well I wouldn’t bloody like it at all’ then how about making it your duty/obligation/mission to try and imagine what its like being that person and helping them? Its good to be good.
Now before you go getting all cynical and judgey-wudgey on me, let me be the first to say I’m no motherfucking Mother Theresa. Being a better person takes CONSTANT time, energy and maintenance and sometimes its a little too easy to lose sight of that worthwhile battle and slip into the drone-like state that capitalism so desperately requires of you. Sometimes you can reach the end of the day, having completed your daily routine and realise, “Shit – I didn’t do much of anything that’s positive/constructive/productive/helpful today”… I believe doing just one good deed a day is a direct assault against that capitalistic state of being and is by far better than doing nothing at all. Even if its choosing to capture and set free a spider instead of killing it, buying a Big issue or offering the old biddy in Tesco’s a hand to the car with her shopping; it all means something. Its things like that I try to accomplish on a regular basis. Some days are more successful and fruitful than others but Sssh! – Its not a good deed if you talk about it.
Being this empathetic person is no easy feat. Not just because of the aforementioned conscious effort it takes to not eminate the Camerons, Duncan-Smiths, Osbournes, Murdochs, Hunt’s, Thatchers, O’Reillys and Hannitys of today’s society but because, well… being empathetic is exhausting. It really takes its toll. It actually hurts sometimes.
Just ask my sister.
She’s the only person I consider to be more of an empath than myself. And it physically affects her on a regular basis. The poor thing is incapable sometimes of reading her go-to news site’s latest worldly developments without bursting into inconsolable tears. I know many a person who would call that pathetic (heeeeey thats where the title comes in!), unnecessary and probably sad but ask yourself – isn’t that better than being a heartless, cold, unfeeling robot? I know what kind of sister I’d rather have. I know what kind of person I’d prefer to contribute to our society and live in our world. I too have found The News so moving and upsetting at times that I have found myself in a fit of guttural tears, especially now I have the addition of joyful pregnancy hormones. I personally don’t know how you could view genuine footage of petrified Syrian’s fleeing for their lives amongst the pitiful remnants of what used to be their village as planes fly over head and bomb the living shit out of what they once deemed familiar and homely, without crying your heart out. Or at the very least feeling SOMETHING. I was traumatised and subsequently had my phone taken away from me after seeing that video; it was understandibly no fun for my partner to see me in that state… Whereas me bursting into tears whilst watching ‘Hugh’s War on Waste’ is apparently hilarious… A family-ran parsnip farm was forced to shut down after Morrisons, the purchasers of their product, refused to alter their ridiculous and unachievable food standards and requirements. Subsequently, on camera, the mother and son broke down at the terrifying prospect of losing their livelihood’s; something generation upon generation of their family had built up. I was essentially crying because people were crying over parsnips. Alright, it’s a little funny.
Anyway, the trauma the footage of the Syrian’s plight caused me to make a conscious decision (for the remainder of this pregnancy at least – I have an undeveloped human being inside me after all and the little guy’s pretty darn susceptible to my drastic changes in emotion) to not engage in every single tragic, disastrous bit of news that came my way. I am only one person. I cannot cure world hunger, war and poverty on my own; especially just by sitting on my sofa watching the Al Jazeera news channel and weeping like… well, a pregnant person. Direct local action; donating to foodbanks, recycling, giving clothes to charity, staging protests and sit-ins, raising awareness and indeed writing blogs is a lot more accomplishable and I like to think a good building-block in the making of a better world. At some point you have to assign yourself (if your circumstances and attachments, like mine, dictate so) to the reality that doing just that, at the moment is all you can really do. I guess, in the least selfish sounding way as possible, it is about self preservation. Your loved ones, significant other and child/children are not going to appreciate or benefit from you getting violently upset everytime an appeal for vaccinations in Africa comes on the TV or everytime an extremist nut-bag decides to take “justice” into his own hands. Feel that, yes. Be against it, please. Discuss it, sure. But maybe not let it dictate how the rest of your week turns out?
For some that is easier said than done, I know.
I have a friend that up until the recent massacre in Paris, was more or less completely unaware that the world is as fucked up it is and indeed on the very brink (if not slap bang in the middle) of total political and imperial warfare. Don’t get me wrong, she knew ISIS existed and she knows they’re pretty shitty as far as humanity is concerned, what with all the over-throwing, kidnapping, executing and desecrating of sacred monuments but as for current, sociopolitical goings-on, ISIS related or not- her knowledge was really quite limited. Until she went into work on the 14th November 2015 and heard the concerned utterances of debate and information exchanging between her shocked colleagues I’m not sure she even knew what had occurred the previous evening. Being a decent human being, she decided to do a bit of research on the internet. Plus she’d inevitably be expected to contribute constructively to the conversational topic of the day at some point. Appalled by what she found, she then proceeded to visit me that evening and enquire as to what I knew about the subject. She was shocked, yes. Intrigued, but not in a sick way. And angry at such depravity. But she didn’t let it ruin her night.
I wish to state, she is no stupid person; she’s an incredibly open minded, quick-learning, adaptable individual – she just chooses to live, most of the time, in voluntary ignorance. And do you know what? She’s really very happy. Blissful you might say. She doesn’t listen to the radio when in the car and if she does, tends to avoid any news broadcast. She’d never bother to buy a paper or (unless expressly advised to) check out a news website. She’d certainly never think to watch the 6’0 clock news, even if it is to pad out a tedious advert break. She is, by her own admittance, pretty much totally unaware of what our staple news distributors would deem “worth-knowing” and she lives a perfectly carefree, untroubled existence. To quote the formidable Tina Turner, a little bit out of context but still;
“Who needs a heart when a heart can be broken?”
In a way I envy her of this. Afterall, until my (I’m dubious to call it this but don’t know what else it could be referred to as) conscious awakening a couple of years ago, I was pretty close along side her. I would actually intentionally go out of my way to avoid knowing anything remotely political. I’d never be able to pick, say Ed Balls or William Hague out of a line-up. I couldn’t tell you who ran the Liberal Democrat party during the coalition… I wouldn’t even have been able to properly tell you what a coalition was. I couldn’t tell you what or where the Gaza Strip is. I couldn’t tell you what the IMF does or indeed stands for. What does monolithic mean? What the hell is Neo-Liberalism??? Nope, nothing. But I think its safe to say, I was a little bit more positive in my outlook of the world. Naive, yes but that’s commonplace when wearing rose-coloured glasses.
Saying this though, I wouldn’t change it. Knowledge is power after all. And there’s always more to know therefore more power to be gained… I mean brainpower not; mwahahaha I’m-going-to-conquer-the-world kind of power. But a thirst for knowledge twinned with an empathetic mindset means you always stand to feel a little burdened. When a doom and gloom headline flashes up on the computer or TV screen, you’re going to get the horrendous internal plummeting feeling. But if you can handle it then soldier on I say; the world needs more people like us. If for no other reason than to counteract the toxic poison the Conservative Government is leaking all over this country.
I for one feel grateful that when watching a David Attenborough special on Indian rock monkeys, my 3 year old son cried because a mother foolishly decided to temporarily loan her baby to her monkey friend whom promptly decided to dispose of it by flipping, twisting and running at great speed while it clung to her chest for dear life (for the empath’s reading this: don’t worry the baby survived). It of course broke my heart to see him show such brazen emotion at such a tender and innocent age but also made me feel epically proud that I am raising a son capable of living vicariously through others for both better and worse. That’s the type of person society now needs. That’s the type of person most likely to make a difference. Empathy in my mind is not a luxury; its a neccessity that stops the guy in the street with the big charity bucket being ignored, the drug addict being villified and the class geek being bullied.
So empaths: I say, follow your emPATH (bahahahaaa). It’s hardwork but know you’re not alone and know that your existence is appreciated more than you know by more people than you’d think.