I am a great believer in empathy. The abililty to be able to put ourselves in another person's situation - to understand the impact of our actions, or to explain their actions or words, to attempt to feel what they feel - is essential if we are to connect, really connect, to other people. It’s something I value in my friends and family (and despair of the lack of it in my mother-in-law!). It is a good thing.
Empathy requires us to imagine how we would feel in a different state. I’m finding it hard to be empathetic at the moment. No, that’s wrong. I am finding that being empathetic right now, the last few weeks, is almost too difficult to bear. First, we had the devastating earthquake in Christchurch, when friends and family and the people of a city I love were shaken, some to death. Empathy then was painful, but I know the people of Christchurch took strength from the shared pain of all New Zealanders and people around the world, and the love that we sent them as a result of our pain. Living in Wellington, on the faultline between the Pacific and Australian plates, it is too easy to imagine how it might feel, too easy to imagine what would happen to our homes, our offices, our places. I’ve imagined it before - here in my house on stilts on the side of a hill, I’ve lain in bed after an earthquake and imagined being trapped at the bottom of the valley in a crumbled wreck of a house. Prior to 22 February, it didn’t seem quite possible. Now we know it is all too possible.
Then came Japan. I sat watching the television last Friday night in horror, with intense emotion. There fortunately seemed to be little damage from the earthquake itself, with Japan's strong building code and the earthquake being centred 120 km out to sea. But the implications of that location soon became obvious, as we saw incredible footage of the tsunami roll across the ocean and then, just as easily, across the fields and roads and through the towns and cities and homes and offices and airports and hospitals and schools of northern Japan. We knew then that thousands of lives would be lost. By the end of the evening, I knew too that I had to close down my empathy. I couldn’t help the people of Japan by imagining myself in their situations. It wouldn’t help me to do this either.
Shutting off though is not easy - I was at the gym yesterday, and both channels on the TV were showing footage from Japan. I found myself puffing and sweating and trying not to cry on the arc trainer at the sight of an old man showing a photo of his beautiful, kimono-clad, missing wife, and at a young man looking for his father and grandfather in the rubble.
But for the most part, I’m holding it together. I'm working on not thinking about how it must have felt to be in the earthquake or tsunami, or to be looking for lost family or friends, and now the horror of the fear of radiation. It helps no one. And for me, not thinking has to be a conscious decision. You see, I know it can be done.
When my husband and I were trying to have a child, we allowed ourselves to imagine what it would be like; holding our new baby, hugging our child, dressing them, making their lunches, even disciplining them as they grew older and inevitably became cheeky and disobedient. This was exciting and thrilling when we first started trying. It reaffirmed for me the decision I had made to become a mother and - perhaps because I had waited for so long to get to this stage – I welcomed the feelings of love and excitement these thoughts and imaginings brought me. I never thought of them as fantasies. Why should I when other women don’t have to?
But as every infertile woman (couple?) knows, this thinking can soon become a form of self-torture. It feeds the grief when the pregnancy is lost, and it feeds the desperation when you are trying to conceive, and it makes us go a little crazy. And I found it became almost impossible to stop. But then I got the news. There would be no baby. And I had no choice. I couldn’t continue thinking about the babies I would never have, or the two I had lost. I couldn’t imagine a baby of my own, and then torture myself by remembering anew that it would never happen. And so I stopped. I stopped myself thinking about these things. I stopped imagining what it would be like. And the pain went away. Not instantly, definitely not instantly. It took a lot of time, and sometimes still creeps up on me (as I often discuss here), but I did it. And life is good.
And so my point is that now I know I can do it. I can choose not to think of something that will bring me pain but which I am helpless to change and, other than donating to emergency funds, unable to help. It isn’t heartless, it isn’t cold. The empathy is there, threatening to overwhelm, and needs to be controlled. Not thinking won’t be easy, and it definitely won’t work 100% of the time, but when I feel the emotions rising, taking over, I can and must block it out. I can and should protect myself – because no-one else can.
I am thankful for this, this strength I know I now have, a gift from those tough times, a comfort amidst the tears. It worked on my infertility, and right now, it needs to work on my feelings for the earthquake victims. Living here – where, if the earth moves, it moves violently and mercilessly- too much empathy is not a good thing.