Monday, 22 October 2012

Empathy and understanding, both tangly and wangly

At some point over the last month I was having the usual drunken conversations in the pub, and the subject of heartache came up, as in your first big horrible break up. I was chuckling at this being the usual point when a teenager at the inevitably painful end of their first real relationship will tell you that you don't understand, and you've never been through this etc, etc. And I assumed that absolutely everyone on the planet had been through this rite of passage routinely, it's right up there with sneaking your first drinks and cigarettes, and feeling like you are the first and most rebellious human ever to have lived, as something we have all done.

I shall name no names, but I was speaking to somebody who claimed never to have genuinely suffered from this. I was trying to explain the feeling, you know the one, the sheer awfulness of wanting and needing to be with somebody who has simply decided that they really don't want to be with you anymore. And the awful pleading phone calls or conversations, or letters etc that you inevitably end up sending. He assured me that he has never felt that, he just gets angry. Angry that he's put so much time and effort into a relationship that has gone wrong, and thus wasted his time. I suggested this might be displacement, and was soundly put in my place. Interestingly I know for a fact that he has never actually done the dumping in any relationship, and has always been the dumpee, which is why I assumed my attempt to find a shared experience in the ridiculous teenage style heartache so beloved of songwriters everywhere would be a no-brainer. I then told him that he couldn't possibly understand 99% of every song ever written, which was a slight exaggeration.

This then led me to think about how much you really need to have lived through to empathise with other people and what they are going through. Given that I have always felt a bit put out and narked off by parents incessantly telling me that I don't have kids so I can't understand, it occurred to me that no, I don't have kids of my own, but I do understand. To put this more clearly, I have stepchildren now, and have done for the last 10 years or so, and while this has obviously clarified a few of the points, I think I understood most of this stuff before I had them. Equally, I am clearly more qualified and able to understand these things than say, somebody who has just had their first kid a week ago. Sorry if that sounds patronising, but surely no more than the brand new mummy telling me I can't possibly understand how much they worry about their shiny new baby.

Obviously we all see awful things every day on the news, and nobody tells us to wind our necks in and stop being upset about it because we've never been in the middle of a genocide/lost our entire family in an earthquake/abused by a track-suited northern DJ. Thus my ill-founded statement to my friend in the pub that he genuinely wouldn't understand when his future child told him that he didn't was clearly twattishness of the highest order. He might not have experienced it first hand, but that doesn't mean he doesn't understand the situation. I've never seen my mother mown down and killed by a white van, but that hasn't stopped me feeling for those poor kids in Cardiff this week. I've had a pretty decent time of life, but that doesn't stop me feeling for all those made homeless in natural disasters.

Of course equally, it is difficult to put yourself in different positions to your own, say you are on a lovely 150k salary, and you are reading of the difficulties of the average family on a combined income of maybe 20-30k, you think back to when you were earning that sort of money, and think to yourself, well I was fine, why can't they cope? Or look at your kid earning over 100 pounds a week, and thinking how much less you earned at his age, and wondering why he can't make it go as far.
This works both ways though, as when you're a kid looking at your parents, they appear to have money coming out of their ears, and you look forward to when this will happen to you, and all the things you will get with it. And then it never happens, because your kids think you are made of money and are spending it all for you.

This is all part of the current wage envy/income gap debate of the moment of course, and a wild tangent from where I started, but every income group has different pressures on it, and it is difficult to make assumptions about the filthy rich and the undeserving poor, and whether either of them actually exist, or are a handy scapegoat invented by the tabloid media and government spin doctors so we have something to rail against other than the government, a revolution preventative. I have no intention of going too deeply into the wage gap debate just now, suffice to say that closing it up a bit would solve a great deal of problems.

I suppose what I have been trying to say is that more often than not people do understand your problems, try not to push them away, even if they don't have first hand experience of it, empathy is fairly universal in most situations. Even your Dad telling you to shrug it off and get on with it is just giving you the best advice he knows how to. And telling people they can't and never will understand something is just ludicrous, as a species we have an incredible race memory that has enabled us to reach these lofty evolutionary heights, I suspect there's a lot of shared experiences and empathy stashed away in that.  


HarryMonmouth said...

Problems can be viewed in two ways according to how people experience them. Either intellectually or emotionally. If you consider intellectually then empathising is merely a puzzle. One must simply deconstruct the situation and then reconstruct it in light of your own situation. If considered emotionally then it is a lot simpler. You can feel crappy or you can feel great. There is a spectrum of feelings in between and generally most people feel ok-ish. If they feel crappy then there are all kinds of ways that people can feel crappy but in general most people have felt totally crappy to the point that they can endure at some point. Most people have also felt totally awesome at some point.

This is because emotional sensation is all relative to your frame of reference. Ergo, everyone is able to relate no matter what they have experienced before because there is only a certain limit to how bad we can feel and pretty much everyone has been there at some point. Just because their bad day was a different colour does not make it any less bad. If it is not less bad then it is only an intellectual difference and therefore empathising is only a matter of considering a different angle intellectually.

Dave Holwill said...

Now that is probably what I should have said. Nicely put.