Reflections from a recovering(?) empath

Have you come across this podcast yet? It’s an NPR Invisibilia production entitled “The End of Empathy.”

I saw a few people in my Facebook universe post it, but paused and took the forty or so minutes to listen (one of my favorite benefits of two-plus hours of commuting every day!!) when I saw that one of my law school public interest colleagues noted both that it was powerful and described how she was going to wrestle with some of its themes in the lead-up to Easter. I wasn’t sure what I might be getting into, and I wasn’t entirely sure I was ready for it…but I wanted the chance to find out.

I wasn’t ready. I mean, I got through it. I don’t think I had flashbacks or anything — or, if I did, I guess the mindfulness work that I’m doing helped me stay present enough that I don’t recall it being that bad to listen to it. But sheesh…it cut right to the heart of dilemmas that I don’t even think I realized I was having. And, I suppose, I want to see if the act of writing about it helps me be *more* ready to wrestle as I keep pressing onward.

So, to back up a little bit…if, say, you don’t have a spare forty minutes to listen to the — powerful, compelling, well-produced, thoughtful, etc. — podcast in its entirety. The basic idea is that it tells the story of a man named “Jack” and a woman they (for privacy reasons) call “M” from two completely opposite perspectives. There are a lot of intense details (and strong language!) — but the basic idea is that Jack is an “involuntary celibate” (incel — known for their hatred of, and sometimes their violence toward, women) who, for a time, dated “M.” Jack was, in no uncertain terms, abusive to M. He hacked into her email accounts; he sent nude photos of her to her parents and friends and professors; he stalked her across state lines. Ultimately, they had a dramatic falling out, he spent some time in an inpatient psychiatric unit, and eventually Jack garners 15 minutes of fame as a self-declared “reformed” incel who became a spokesperson for the incel community generally after a particularly tragic act committed by a different member of the incel community generates a whole lot of media attention toward the somewhat obscure group.

The first telling of the story is intended to help foster empathy for Jack — to help the listener understand how Jack became who he was, to get inside his head, to, I don’t know exactly — but maybe “build a bridge” across the seemingly endless chasm between an average listener and Jack and the outrageous things that he thinks and says and does. The second telling of the story, well…just isn’t here for the bridge building. The alternate telling shines a light into the various ways in which Jack’s self-proclaimed narrative is utter nonsense. And calls into question the whole concept of fostering empathy for someone like Jack — especially the extent to which the first telling of the narrative gives legitimacy to Jack’s casting himself as both the hero AND the victim in the story. And it completely erases “M”s story.

So what I’m really not ready to do yet is process, in writing, here, too many details of my marriage and its implosion. I’ve done a fairly exhaustive — some say “diplomatic” — effort to do so in the domestic violence questionnaire I had to do prior to mediation. But I can say that, boy oh boy, did I find myself squarely in the “I’m not here for empathy for Jack” camp. And the more I listened, the more firmly I dug myself into the trench — why…WHY would anyone think there’s a benefit to anyone except Jack (and others like him) to providing a forum — a curated forum, designed specifically to legitimize his experience — for his unsympathetic tale.

When the podcast got to this excerpt, summarizing the position of the producer of the second telling, I was practically screaming my affirmation. YES. THIS. FINALLY. Someone who is describing exactly the conclusion that I didn’t know that I’d come to over the past nine months or so:

There’s a cost to empathy. Empathy is not an infinite resource, and it’s not free, because it saps your strength for the fight. So if you boost one side, you’ll make the other side weaker. And that is especially a problem when the side you’re boosting is the side with power.

I’d like to think that I can recite, pretty accurately, the various pieces of my ex’s story that do, in a whole lot of ways, generate “emapthy” from me. In fact, I spent almost 20 years of my life walking side-by-side with him, supporting him in every way I knew how. I do get it. But, quite frankly, I just don’t care anymore. Because all of the “getting it” in the world didn’t change anything for me, or, really, for him. He walked away. We argued a bit about custody and parenting, but — from what I understood from the mediator — his only qualm about relinquishing legal custody was that he wouldn’t have any say in the mental health care costs for the kids. Ultimately, his divorce petition requested that the court grant me all of the custody and all of the overnights. We split our assets. He requested an expedited hearing. He got all of those things.

I, of course, got my precious children. I wake them up every morning, and I tuck them in bed every night. I wouldn’t trade my life for his for anything in the world. But in addition to the good morning kisses and the bedtime stories and the Disney World vacations, I get…all of the emails from the school. And all of the therapy appointments. And all of the flying dinner plates and slammed doors and harsh words and tears. I get the battles over homework. And screen time. And second desserts. And toothbrushing. I get the loss of my military career (and the accompanying retirement benefits) because I can’t pull off reserve duty as a single mama. I get the endless guilt trips from the kids when I leave in the mornings before they’re out of bed, and when I get home from work just in time for dinner and bedtime. I get to parent. He gets to play.

And as far as I can tell, the people who are “empathizing” with my ex are, to a large degree, totally on board with this. He never wanted to be married. He didn’t want kids. He resented the whole endeavor. He prefers traveling the world and being really good at the work he does, and getting lots of kudos and affirmation. He didn’t say any of that out loud until more than 14 years in, but — apparently — it was was best for him to walk away, so he did.

So…what does empathy look like here? What does it mean? How do I do it? WHY should I do it? My law school colleague who posted how she was thinking about it in the lead up to Easter pointed out that our shared faith asks us really to see and to love — with a motivation, I think, to encourage people to be and to do better. But what is “better” here? I have no idea.

My pastor from my beloved Blue Ocean Faith community is posting about it, too. So if empathy is designed to expand our imaginations to include people who do not look like us, or who do not think like us, or who have not experienced what we’ve experienced…and that expansion helps us to better show mercy and love and grace by “not treating people the way we would not want to be treated” — what does that mean?! How do I do that? WHY should I do it? I have no idea.

I don’t know if writing about it has clarified my thinking any. I do know that I am what some folks in some circles identify as an “empath,” and I know that narcissists are often drawn to empaths, and empaths to narcissists, and…well…for all of the pretty-well documented reasons…that didn’t work out so well for me. So I’ve been trying, and will keep trying So. Very. Hard. to figure out this whole empathy thing. I sure haven’t figured it out yet.


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