So you know in fiction how we talk about characters who walk around with the weight of the world upon them? Generally they are either deeply sad but wise rulers or their mind cracks under the strain and they become villains. How much weight of the world are we heaping upon ourselves through more interconnected forms of communication? How much is too much?
Empathy is recognizing and sharing the thoughts and emotions of other beings. There are indications that empathy actually lights up the same pathways in our brain at a much lower intensity as if we were experiencing it ourselves. So when you see someone fall over and hurt themselves, your own nervous system sends very low intensity pain signals along the same parts of the body as the person who fell.
So we think of empathy as being a completely altruistic thing, but it doesn’t have to be. In fact the way most of us are socialized to use empathy tends toward selfishness. You’re encouraged to put yourself in that person’s place and take their thoughts, emotions, and experiences and internalize them from your own perspective.
How often have you said, “I know how you feel.”? Did you mean you could empathize with them? How have you felt when someone said that to you when you were going through a particularly trying or deeply painful time? I know I feel angry at anyone who dares think they understand exactly what I’m going through. They aren’t in my head. They don’t have my experiences. They don’t KNOW. They may have had a similar experience and felt what they assume I am feeling, but they don’t KNOW. Just as I don’t know what someone else is feeling. It is easy to use empathy to take someone else’s experience away from them and make it your own or about your own experiences.
My Mom used to tell me that she couldn’t make me mad. Only I could make myself mad. Which honestly enraged me. Now, as an adult, I think she’s half-right. I don’t have much if any control over my first flash of anger, however I absolutely have control over my reaction to my anger. I can choose to stay angry or to release my anger and move past it. I can not control my own empathy, but I can control my actions because of it. If my reaction is anything other than compassion, I need to be very aware of my actions as I move forward to make sure I am not co-opting someone else’s experience. If my reactions are purely internal and focused on myself, perhaps I shouldn’t be voicing them to those who have lived the experience.
So, I can’t control my initial reaction to such inputs, and I’m going to have negative events no matter what I do. However, I need to be careful in seeking out negative but avoidable things. Since I can’t control my initial reaction I’m actually increasing the net negativity in the world, my social circles, and my own life, just by viewing negative things beyond my own experiences. But, I don’t want to live in a happy little hole in the ground or view the world through rose-tinted glasses. I want to see the ugly things. I want to know experiences beyond my own (and as a writer that’s kind of REALLY important). If everyone worked toward maximum world happiness by avoiding all negativity and walling off the sources of negative information… that’d be super scary and even the “good” parts of the world would be a little Ayn Randian for my taste.
How do we find balance between being informed and connected without bathing in negativity? How do we lighten each others loads without making the load heavier on everyone? Privilege isn’t about what you have, it’s fundamentally about what you don’t have to think about. Is avoiding negativity the ultimate flaunting of privilege?
I wish I felt closer to figuring any of it out.