When we worry over our symptoms, we are, in the strictest sense, worrying about ourselves. The symptom is what is happening to me, what is happening in my body. Even when they restore my agency, even when they unveil the tightly coiled spring of my potentiality, my symptoms are always my symptoms. Inevitably, though, disease is a social thing. What we feel is our own, but others hurt too.
Tell people that you are sick and they will ask you how you are feeling. They will ask you and you will tell them, each time with the same words in the same sequence. Your mind will wander as you recite the formula, these words that have already become a kind of ritual incantation. Drifting off, you will think about how strange the question is, about the way it suggests an improbable inquiry into sensation as such. How are you feeling? What does it mean to feel? What allows us to have feelings at all?
Finishing your routine, you will return to the room. You will remember that you have really been asked, “What are you feeling?” Rate your pain on a one to ten scale. We both understand numbers. Maybe they will help us understand each other. You have been asked this question by someone desperate to grasp something that will always slip out of their hands. You have been asked this question by someone who is sympathetic, but who cannot understand what sympathy demands.
The fault is not their own: Where the etymology of “symptom” suggests passivity, the origins of “sympathy” propose an impossible activity. From words meaning “with” and “feeling,” sympathy promises a radical correspondence with the other. When those we love are sick, we pursue this proposal to its illusory end: We want to feel as our unfortunate other does, feel what they feel. That we cannot do so is the tragedy of the sympathetic spirit. I feel, but I will never truly feel with you, much as I might try.
Sympathy thus begets a kind of paralysis. Acutely aware of our inadequacy, we render ourselves incapable of emotional action, frozen in our attempts to reach across the void. Let us be kinder to ourselves, to our others. In the end, sympathy does not, cannot, offer complete understanding of the other’s pain. Sympathy dissolves instead into the bare fact of connection with others, the desire for a bond that we know will always be incomplete. The sympathetic want most of all to walk beside the sick. When someone asks how you are feeling, they are really asking you to tell them what they should feel. They want to know what they should do and how they can do it with you.
What should you feel? I cannot tell you. I do not know. But I am so, so thankful that you asked.
Walk with me.