Empathic Excess

I know there is a condition (sometimes labeled compassion fatigue) of excess of empathy producing its opposite, over time, in the person who has generally been open, accepting, willing to see another’s viewpoint and vulnerable to feeling their pain. I know because I recognize that, contrary to my habitual way of being, I have been notably intolerant of late, managing not to express my disdain only by withdrawing from engagement, staying “out of people’s way” and trying to minimize my following of news and other online activities. I haven’t been very successful with that last, still reading many of the stories and opinions in my inbox daily news feeds. I have, unexpectedly, been far more successful at insulating myself from the cares and needs of characters in novels, by ceasing to read them. It has been a puzzlement (to use a term from a favorite story, “The King and I”) that I have become impatient with reading, when that activity has, throughout my life, been my preferred means of escape from my immediate circumstances. 

My childhood was not a happy one, an only child living with a rageaholic mother and an emotionally absent father, and prone to catching every illness passing around, so that I spent a good deal of time alone in bed, in my room, with the radio and books for company. The few activities I could engage in that my mother would not interrupt with a physical or verbal assault on me, were using the toilet or being ill, and reading. Not being a stupid child, I quickly learned to take a book with me into the bathroom, shut the door and sit on the toilet reading – for so long a time that when I finally stood up I had a deep red ring on my behind and my legs were numb. In retrospect I perceive that I probably also fell sick more easily and quickly because of the household stress, and the fact that the ensuing days alone (my mother had a deep fear of germs and would not enter my sickroom) bought me a break from my standard role as her scapegoat.

What I only realized a day or two ago, after weeks of shutting books abruptly after reading only a few pages, is that I can still enjoy reading – just not “serious” books. Lighthearted mysteries, with a touch of humor in the writing, still engage me even when I can see through the plot lines almost from the beginning. Knowing how it will all turn out does not diminish my interest in seeing how the author unfolds the story.The key word, I am sure, in the above sentence was “lighthearted”. Anything more realistic as to characters and their motivations, even mystery novels by some of my favorite authors like Louise Penny, bring on my sensation of being overwhelmed by unwanted emotions. Not just negative ones, any emotions stirred by the excellent writing and delineation of character. 

I have been replacing reading with very specific, limited conversations with a select few friends and acquaintances who are able and willing to discuss abstract ideas, philosophy, or spiritual processes without requiring of me that I solve any problems they may have in living their values. 

In the course of these exchanges, and participation in Quaker Worship Sharing, as well as attending to my daily spiritual exercises, I have come to see my detachment from emotions as a positive indicator of progress along my chosen Path. I seem to be functioning as required on the physical plane, doing my routine, no thought required homemaker chores and offering appropriate support to those around me who request my input. I have been enjoying dialog on the mental plane (reasoning, knowledge, intellect) including giving my analysis of issues or interpersonal concerns when they are requested.

With distracting tugs from the emotional plane effectively shut down, my attention can remain where I wish it to be, developing and maintaining  a spiritual perspective on my life. Aware of the frequency, in the past, of periods in which I felt as though I were teetering on the edge of a precipice, at high risk of plunging into irredeemable depression, and needing to use anger to fight my way back to safer ground, I find that I am now increasingly comfortable with this more disengaged way of negotiating my remaining days.

I do still care about people and broader societal challenges, but most days the caring is more detached. To borrow an image from one of the teachers on my spiritual Path, I am increasingly able to walk along a beach, hear the cries of a swimmer in trouble, throw out a life buoy and tow the swimmer to shore and then walk on, without attachment to how the rescued swimmer proceeds with the remainder of their life. Diametrically opposite to the alleged ancient Chinese belief that if you save a person’s life you are responsible for it forevermore.

Given that my professional career has had me in the role of helping others, and my current part time work still calls for that engagement, I find it an interesting challenge to not drift back into emotional attachment to “what is going on in the world” whether that world is the near one of my friends or the far one of international conflicts. I know from past experience that I am actually better able to assist, when asked, if my ego is not engaged with an outcome, and if I therefore merely offer a new perspective, or make a suggestion for next steps, leaving the implementation to whoever has asked for my input.

Is this new way of being an upside to chronological age? Given that I have also, lately, been rather forcefully confronted with the physical downside of aging, I have to hope that the benefits of detachment will also imbue a revision of self concept, as I figure out how to become comfortable with being an old person.

Wish me well – and success at this endeavor  – please.

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4 Responses to “Empathic Excess”

  1. Sharon Vander Meer Says:

    Out little life boats get smaller and the river bigger as time goes by. I’m in the boat that wants you to be at peace and joy-filled and if I can contribute to that in some small way, let me know.

  2. lesleysking Says:

    I so relate to this. Thank you for elucidating the dilemma so clearly. I too find that my many passions, such as reading, TV, and food, only occasionally bring the joy they once did. I attribute this to the peace and bliss I am graced on the high planes from my spiritual practice. Nothing can compare to that Love, and if these lower pastimes diminish, so be it. At times my mind is frustrated, when book after book I pick up leaves me bored or agitated. Fortunately I can pick up a bunch at the library and be content to read none of them, if that is the case. Hearing about your childhood really touched me–a perfect springboard for your beautiful devotion. ❤

  3. Cheryl @ Artzzle Says:

    For a little lightness, my hubs often says getting old is better than the alternative. But aging definitely has ups, downs and unfamiliar challenges, doesn’t it? I try to renew pass times I used to enjoy, like decorating, plants, and anything art related. Reading isn’t as pleasant as it once was, but I’m enjoying the many design TV shows.

    I, like you. used to read constantly when I was a child, and it was easy to hide from unpleasantness at home, because our local library was literally across my backyard, over the alley, in the city building. And the librarian was an older neighbor lady. Perfect place for me. And she would recommend books that were above my age level because she saw who I was, and what I could handle (All appropriate, of course, LOL).

    In this age bracket, I’ve lost many special friends, and that’s so hard to accept. But I have 5 wonderful people I connect with. Sometimes for serious talks, but lots of time just for fun things.

    Basically, just one day at a time, I guess. BTW, one of those special people is you, and I thoroughly enjoy our talks.

    Later –

    Cheryl

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