I have always been “sensitive” at times, whatever that means. For the majority of people that knew me growing up it presented as the opposite, at times a pure, distant coldness.
As a child and teenager it could manifest itself as me reacting to a comment, rejection or negative action from another by internally beating myself relentlessly. Personal or not, I took most things extremely personally and could become defensive or more than likely retreat into my safe shell.
Contrary to my wife’s sometime opinion of my obliviousness, like when she has a new haircut, I CAN be observant. Obsessively so. I think about people I walk past daily, what their life may be like, why there is so much strain on their face and ponder what their eyes are projecting. I think about what a great story their life may make. And of course, that I would love to write it.
These reflections have followed a trajectory. In my twenties I remained shy, most of the time devoid of confidence. But outwardly when I experienced or perceived others’ discomfort or hardship, I felt it. I was empathetic to a degree. Naively perhaps I thought I understood it. It was uncomfortable, an irritating itch. But it rarely stopped me in my tracks. Cynicism from my own experiences built a protective wall.
And then came a monumental life shift. When I talk about Mr. Perfect and present about my story, I segment life into three stages; the first 25 “lost” years, the second period of surreal change and the third period, post-30 years old, of some form of acceptance and of course the beginning of “Mr. Perfect”.
This pivotal post-30 chapter carried with it an irreversible overdose of empathy. I was not alone.
A podcast I listened to recently about the Grenfell Tower fire in London saw the presenter berate their perceived corruption of the UK government and complete lack of care for the “poor”. They talked of a friend’s child that was distraught when seeing the homeless and destitute while walking in London. The child could not process why anyone would allow another human to “live” on the streets.
Equally another guy I met at a construction company after a recent Mr. Perfect talk, described his 18 year old son’s struggles with bipolar and his apparent sensitivity. He took him into the city one day for dinner and they walked past a notorious area for homeless. He was taken aback by his son’s reaction; the boy was distressed to the point of tears. He wondered, how could a world that has more than enough resources, money and people allow this?
That exchange resonated deeply and planted the seed for this reflection. I find myself fixating on a particular person or condition and then for hours after, their hardship will play on a loop. Although this diverts from panic at my own battles, it is just as intense. The waves of dread and guilt weigh on my chest.
This is not what I call sympathy. Sympathy is distancing yourself from a pain, perhaps momentarily feeling “bad” for someone. A monetary gesture, a social media post or comment of “I’m so sorry for you”.
Melancholy is different. I feel it daily to varying degrees. It comes with depression is usually deflected inwards.
But empathy, to me at least, is the outward expression of this.
My version of empathy leaves me eternally wondering, is this empathy natural to me? Is it because of my mental battles? Or is it just heightened because of them?
While writing this a rolodex of memories flicked back five years. My wife had bought me an autobiography of Johnny Cash, simply titled Cash. I read it in a couple of sittings over a Christmas holiday at the beach.
Image by Andy Earl: Johnny Cash, Walking Away
A few notable stories stood out with the theme across the book of Cash’s tortured soul despite his seemingly superstar life. Cash was the king of empathy. His songs perspired it in spades, especially when performing at prisons for convicts:
“I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin' in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he's a victim of the times.
I wear the black for those who never read”.
Johnny Cash, The Essential Johnny Cash
Cash was raised in poverty in forgotten, rural America. Although he was certainly no angel, he bought clothes and food for fellow artists in tough times, and donated money from his music for AIDS sufferers, addicts, orphans, autistic children and more. As the biographer noted, “Cash’s suffering made him acutely aware of the suffering of others”.
But as I flicked back through the book’s text online, and the washing-machine cycle of my mind slowed, I noted that although Cash did of course love his own company and solitude, fishing, walking and reading, two sentences provided the perfect ending to this musing. A telling, hopeful and inspiring observation:
“His emotional wounds could have made Cash an introvert. But instead of isolating himself he spent his entire life reaching out to others”.