Empathy in the Extreme

JordanFiction Writing, Forged in Grace

This post first appeared at www.indie-visible.com in the column My Big Mouth.

People always want to know if your fiction is derived from “your real life.” Never sure where these strange characters come from, whispering their stories in my ears, I’ve grilled friends who have claimed to find “me” in my writing to understand what they see. For instance, protagonist Grace in my forthcoming novel Forged in Grace is a burn survivor who discovers unexpectedly that she has the power to heal. I have not been burned like she was. I do not have the power, no matter how often I have wanted to believe, to heal. When I worked on the first massive revision with my editor we discussed at length where Grace’s healing power came from, what it really was in the metaphoric language of writing. My ultimate feeling: that Grace’s healing power is a form of empathy gone to the extreme. Empathy so intense it can actually heal. What an idea. If only, right? That’s why it’s fiction.

In my life, I’ve had more opportunities to offer if not empathy, exactly—which seems to require that you at least know something of what the suffering person is experiencing, so perhaps sympathy—than I would like to. And in less than two months’ time I’ve spent more time in hospitals delivering paltry moral support for family and friends than the sum total of my whole life. And in this process I have asked myself: where is the line between genuine help, doing what you can for the suffering of others, and empathy gone awry, empathy transformed into co-dependence, empathy elicited because, in some way, to help others is to attempt to help wounded parts of yourself?

In all these cases it hasn’t been my body under a knife or in repair in the hospital. None of the terrible things—broken bones, brain surgery, stroke, and more, have happened to me. And yet, in the duration of these things, I find myself unable to work, unable to concentrate. Classes I teach fall apart; edits take twice as long; and my own personal writing gets shoved to the back burner despite pressing deadlines. I ask myself all the time: how do other people carry on? Not as a judgment, but as a curiosity, seeking true guidance through my own wobbly ability to cope.

I don’t even fully understand it myself, this Florence Nightingale need to nurse and mend. It would be fine if I truly had the capacity of a nurse to be present for suffering and then turn some of it off and go back to my life. Or maybe that’s an illusion—maybe all of us handle suffering by finding the proper compartment in our hearts or heads and stashing the agonies there for later dates. Maybe that’s why a moment of televised drama, a too-touchy commercial or powerful work of art can bring unexpected waterworks—what we put in those chambers stays there, waiting.

Call me dramatic, but in a Facebook status update the other day I wrote the words: these are mortal days, as though somehow we are not all, always close to the edge of our own deaths, known or undetermined. And it’s when mortality manhandles those we have thought immune (because doesn’t love create that kind of illusion?) that it slaps us in the face, shakes us.

Maybe I wrote Grace into being because I don’t know how to carry the hurt of others, but I also don’t know how not to be there alongside it. Through Grace I have imagined a magic alternative (although for her this gift is not without its perils, either).

I don’t mean to be morbid, but like many initiations and passages of life, this was a mortal season, these are mortal days. One day you’re not thinking mortal thoughts, the next, you are; you are thinking how, if you hadn’t been wearing a helmet, you might never have awakened at all on that road, that a broken hip would be the least of your injuries; you are thinking how with just a twitch of a scalpel in the wrong direction, your child could awake from surgery as someone you don’t recognize; you’re thinking how this might be the last time you wear pajamas in bed with your loved one on a Saturday; how a body might or might not rally from surgery, infection, transplant.

Maybe it isn’t empathy I feel at all, but an attempt to keep the future from rushing in at me and those I love too fast.

JordanEmpathy in the Extreme