I have what I suspect is a common tendency to afford way too much worth to the things I’m feeling and not enough to the things I’m doing.
It’s totally possible that this is a just a human thing, or maybe only an Immature Young People Thing (as so many things are, apparently), but I think that maybe it’s a bit of a Story People Thing.
When I say Story People, I mean people who read constantly as children and as much as they can as adults, people who immerse themselves in fictional worlds like movies and games and series and spend their time getting to the heart of the stories. I think that there’s a crop of us–a decent slice of the population, really–who were socialized much more by narratives than by other people from the start. That is my assumption.
What I know is that I was. I knew that books were easier to get good stuff out of than other people, and so for most of my life I read much more than I interacted with others. This has benefits and I wholly recommend it as a lifestyle choice, in hindsight. But at the time it wasn’t exactly a decision. It was instinctive. That was the way I learned to operate right from the beginning. I didn’t consciously decide that was the right way to live, and after a certain point it was the only thing I was capable of. Bookish, antisocial kids are a dime a dozen, but it’s hard for them to know that because, well, it’s not like they’re going to talk amongst themselves.
Eventually I learned the difference between actual shyness and garden-variety introversion, and realized that what I had was the latter, complicated only by the usual adolescent heaps of awkwardness and the gaps in social skills one gets by not interacting very much. I realized that social skills were, well, skills, and skills could be learned. I could become socially skilled! I was all over that for awhile.
When you read, especially when you read heaps and heaps of shitty YA fiction novels (and a few good ones) that are all written in present-tense-first-person, you are learning about empathy. The characters are, of course, specifically designed for you to empathize with them, but hey, you’ve got to start somewhere. Books are empathetic training wheels.
This is a very satisfying process–you read the story, you understand how the main character feels, you go through their ups and downs with them and finally you’re rewarded with a happy ending.
You empathize, and your reward is “Congratulations! You get it!”
Again, training wheels. This is practice. This is not where we’re meant to stop.
I have trouble with this. Every so often, as is part of growing up, I have a big epiphany where I realize how very ignorant I am and how much I don’t understand and the vast numbers of things going on that I’ve previously paid no attention to. As someone who intends, right now, to go into journalism, this is kind of a recurring theme. I’m trying desperately to understand world events with the kind of cultural sensitivity and depth of knowledge that they deserve, and I tend to be hard on myself for not understanding as much as I could be–I have the whole informational wealth of the internet at my fingertips every single day, after all.
We all have the internet, though. The vast majority of us are trying to understand what’s going on with the world, since it’s hard to be so interconnected without getting a sense of all the nasty stuff. We all like to feel as though we’re getting at the truth, and we’re aware, and we’re paying attention. Most of us would like to demonstrate that we know Syria from Serbia and Chechnya from the Czech Republic. Some of us more than others.
And why, apart from showing how very, very aware we are, and how sophisticated and with the times we are? Well… guilt. We feel guilty if we don’t care, and caring means paying attention. A lot of the time it’s not much different from eating your peas because there are starving children in Ethiopia. Thinking very hard about how it feels to be hungry while you chew might make you a more empathetic, mindful person, but those are just the training wheels again. Empathizing alone shouldn’t be enough to assuage our guilt.
This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be trying to understand. We always, always should be. But there’s no sense in not finishing your dinner because you feel guilty eating it. There is value in using the advantages you have to build yourself into a capable person, and once you have done that, keep trying to understand.
Taking the training wheels off, as far as I can figure out so far, means figuring out first if we have reason to feel guilt. Are you complicit in someone else’s suffering? Are you buying products made by people who exploit their workers or use environmentally unsafe practices? (Probably.) Would it be more or less harmful to boycott their products? Where is your money going? What are your energy habits causing? Who can you write to or talk to to change the social problems and the laws that make people suffer?
This is what I’ve been trying to work on–taking off my empathetic training wheels and…and.. (pause for analogy continuity) riding the Empathetic Person Bike for real. Story people be warned: there is no satisfying narrative ending coming, not within our lifetimes. Life is episodic, and the small, tangible victories will be our rewards–the moral victories are just for encouragement.