I am one of those rare creatures which have begun to appear and voice commonalities with the other rare specimens out there using this unique miracle of the technology age: the internet. We emerge from the shadows, shocked to find others of our kind. I am classified by the MTBI as an empath, a 2% member of the population… an INFJ.
I can empathize with anyone. This can be to my disadvantage at times. I was having a conversation with a writer friend about how difficult it is for us to write villains because we really do get where they are coming from and it isn’t so difficult to say that we might just do the same, given the same damage about and bad choices. How can they be really all that bad? It plays bloody hell with novel plotting when your bad guy is so reasonable. On the other hand, when this ability is utilized, you can use it to make your villain compellingly realistic. Because real people have real motives.
When I had a brief flirtation with the show “The Walking Dead”, I found myself humanizing the zombies on behalf of the other characters, trying to insist that Rick, Daryl, and crew hold on to their humanity by remembering that the ‘walkers’ were once people, too. Every kill, I would whisper to myself, “Someone’s father, someone’s brother, someone’s lover, someone’s son.” I felt the deaths so deeply, I was able to relate to the dismal mental spirals of the characters. Is it any surprise that I didn’t turn into a dedicated viewer?
I still hold on to this little saying whenever I hear of a death of someone with an unknown name, or a sibling of an ancestor who bore no issue, a character who dies off screen, or a cold statistic which imparts a shocking lack of emotion.
So when I did a work thing about food safety where we sat in a conference room with boring carpet and fluorescent lights and the instructor made a meager attempt at plucking our heartstrings by mentioning the number of annual deaths in America due to viral contamination of food, I was already thinking to myself, “Someone’s father, mother, lover, sibling, child…” and then they started a video.
It was an interview with real people, a brother and a sister, who had lost their mother to a foodborne illness. My interest was immediately lost. These were people who were interviewed well after the event; true, they were emotional… but it was a memory of grief. They told it to a camera in a clinical, documentary format. It made a point, but not as well as I had made it in lightning-quick thoughts 30 seconds earlier.
In my mind, every single one of the 3,000 annual deaths was vivid and painful and as shocking as it was when the medical personnel had delivered the dreadful news to the loved ones in waiting rooms.
I didn’t quite roll my eyes at the instructors’ attempts to play their audiences emotions, but I am too practiced at that song to not notice when others play it badly. I feel like I could have given a dramatic rendition of the same story which would have left the conference room with burning eyes instead of yawning mouths.
I can empathize. It makes me write compellingly. My love of drama allows me to manipulate the emotions of the reader to great effect, whether it be joy, delight, fear, or sadness. It means my imagination of other peoples’ emotions is so vivid that I can write real, complex, and deep. I draw from a huge depth of human experience because I have empathized with strangers and family members, friends and employees, fiction and real. I can empathize with those who are not even real as readily as those on the other side of the globe.
I am an empath. Sometimes I wonder if I have my own emotions, or if I only reflect those of other people. I can create vividly real worlds and characters in my mind, characters and worlds which feel as distant and as one with me as the real world do. I will be bored if you try to manipulate my emotions with weaker stuff than I already drink. This may be why I have a difficult time enjoying theater. My empathy makes me a good writer but a difficult audience member.
Personally, I like to think of it as a superpower.