When I was little, I was often criticized for being too sensitive. I didn’t just cry in sad movies, I sobbed, and sometimes carried harrowing images of war, cruelty or injustice around with me for days. I rescued ants and relocated snails from places where they might be squished to hidden areas where they could eat in peace. While my friends shrieked if they spotted a mouse, I left a piece of cheddar cheese in a jar, and when he moseyed on over to check it out, I scooped him up and relocated him to a field.
I tapped into other people’s emotional upheaval and took on their conflicts as if they were my own, losing more energy than I could afford and often walking away from encounters feeling drained and disempowered. The news could set me back for weeks. I had no defense mechanism in place to field global horrors, from animal cruelty to child abuse, deforestation to the impact of natural disasters.
I lived at least half my life believing this sensitivity to be a liability. I needed to toughen up, learn to shut things out, take nothing personally. But a small voice argued with that strategy. My father taught me that the strong should look after the weak, that our humanity resided in connection and compassion. If I shut out the suffering of others, I left them to fight battles they could never win alone. And maybe, just maybe, if more people took things more personally, they wouldn’t allow evil to thrive unchallenged in so many of reality’s dark corners.
One day I did a quizz that had to do with empathy, the ability we have to connect emotionally with others, and at the end of it (after quite a bit of research), I discovered I had a label, one I’ve learned to live with more comfortably. I’m an empath, and while all things are dual, I’ve learned to accept this quality as less a liability than a gift. And I believe it lies at the heart of my writing.
- allows us to tap into unspoken frequencies: to read subtext, recognize nuance, and imagine what it’s like to walk in another sentient being’s footsteps;
- takes us deep into the essence of experience–real or imagined–a journey that breathes life into our stories and gives substance to our fiction;
- pulls us outside ourselves. With the ability to sense and discern the emotions of others, we’re able to move into the vivid or murky inner worlds of our characters. And rich characterization builds a novel.
Essentially, empathy opens us up, and while that exposure makes us vulnerable, it gives us an expansive view of the worlds we know and those beyond. Maybe we need to protect our own emotional wellbeing with awareness and a degree of caution; maybe we need to learn as much as we can about energy and all its weird and wonderful currents; but if you ever feel the urge to rescue an earthworm after a rainstorm, go ahead, find him a patch of hospitable soil and don’t look back. Some day you may want to tell his story.
Next up: On Monday, Heather with ‘F’ and swearing in YA Lit.