It is very easy to be taken in by surface charm and fake emotions. But the ability to feel compassion, and to empathise, lies beneath that surface appearance, and sometimes we learn, to our cost, that not all glittery surfaces are actually composed of gold!
Ah! I do love a title which can be ‘translated’ in two or more ways, don’t you? It is not that I wish to confound, or be dishonest; it is, I think, partly my adoration of words and double meanings and partly a streak of mischievousness in my nature which enjoys the humour of that slight start as people try and work out whether I have deliberately indicated something a little sensual, or rude, underneath the everyday!
And the odd thing about today’s title is that it sweeps up majestically to the heights of human passion and communication, while, as you will see, showing the cold lack of certain emotions which can close half of that experience to a deprived (in my view) group of individuals.
Empathy and compassion are the cornerstones of life’s building, I feel. Without them, I do not think we can operate as warm-blooded (in the metaphorical sense), aware, loving human beings. Empathy comes in a kit with many metaphors attached to it: Walking in another’s shoes is perhaps the one which is most commonly used; I have adapted that to look at the notion of being in another’s skin and actually breathing their breath with them.
Because emotions are often intensely physical. Somatism is extremely common in states of high unhappiness or panic or threat. Our bodies do not lie. The autonomic system within them means that they cannot tell an untruth. Our breath reflects our current state of being very accurately – though much of the subtlety of its inhalations and exhalations remains hidden from watchers.
In Terry Pratchett’s witch-related novels, Granny Weatherwax borrowed the consciousness of other creatures in order to view the world as they habitually did. She rode behind their eyes. But she always gave them back their self-hood and privacy in the end, and knew that there was, in such matters, a price to pay.
Empathy, to me, is rather like this: We ride in another’s coach of the intense emotions – whether joyous or sad – for a limited time, and, by doing this, we understand and feel the subtle shades very vividly. Riding this way allows us to look at the landscape too, and, thus, to read accurately at least some of the non-verbal clues behind the other’s spoken words. It exacts a toll – but, most of the time, this slight exchange of emotional ‘money’ is worth paying.
Bringing this back to my title, one of the most wonderful things in this life is the deep emotional bond we establish with some people we meet. In a few cases, this bond moves into the physical, and sexual, realm – and, when it does, those moments of sensual intimacy can be neatly summed up in the delectable experience of, literally, breathing in the scent of the other’s skin, of inhaling their molecular essence, of learning them in an immediate olfactory way.
How sad it is, therefore, to be born without the capacity for true closeness; to lack the ability to travel behind another’s skin for brief, but essential, moments; to resonate with another’s unseen wave length.
How sad to exist in an emotionally grey world in which there is no reaching out to others via compassion; no understanding of the highs and lows which buffet our loved ones; no genuine feeling for anyone else – just counterfeit feelings, acted superbly after watching others at work and practising in the metaphorical (or actual!) mirror. How sad to hear a friend’s tale of delight, a relative’s testimony of suffering and be completely unmoved within. How tragic just not to get another’s pain because, unless the emotion is present in one’s own heart, it does not exist.
I pity such mortals. I feel grief for whatever it is within them that has closed the doors to empathy. I think they miss out hugely in terms of life’s deep richness and variety. The only skin they can smell is their own. The only breathing they can hear is that which comes from their own respiratory system.
The two quotations above capture the difference between empathy and sympathy perfectly. I would add a third class to this: The box containing those who cannot, or will not, access empathy (though they may well be able to summon up a glib kind of sympathy). This box would say one of two things: ‘I don’t understand why you are so upset…’ or, ‘I don’t get why you are in pain…’
It must be such a lonely experience, living without this instinctive connection to other human beings.
I feel for them. But, where possible, I avoid them.