Survival: II. Empathy
In my dream, I am addressing the Washington, DC Spinoza Society. The group’s organizer has invited attendees to discuss issues they have been mulling over. Having spent much of the time since my diagnosis writing on Spinozian themes, I decide to tell the others about my blog. I raise my hand, am called on, stand.
In the way of dreams, the room is full, but I recognize none of my fellow attendees. They are an indistinct mass, present to me only as a heaviness that expands and contracts at regular intervals. Like my own breath, their presence is a mere fact of what it means to be here, in this room, speaking. But in the way of dreams, something changes as I open my mouth. Not long ago, I begin, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Immediately a wave of sorrow crashes over me. How else to put it? I feel their feelings for me. Temporarily unable to continue, I begin to cry.
In my dream, I pause to wonder over my tears. Though I have not yet concluded my remarks, I of course know that the story has a happy ending. The audience is responding only to the first words I have spoken. Surely they will be assured, comforted, as I continue. Why, then, am I responding with them? Why does their immediate sadness catch up to me before I can share my more recent joy? In my dream, these feelings run at once in advance of my story and behind it. I am left standing in the surf, salt water all around.
Neuroscientists long puzzled over a similar lapse in our structures of perception. When light hits the photoreceptors of the eye, there is a microscopic lag – one-tenth of a second – before the brain processes this information. As such, we are incapable of cognizing events in real time, always just a little behind. To compensate for the lag, our brains produce probabilistic images, extrapolating the future positions of other bodies from their prior states of motion and rest. In the process, we create a now that is little more than an anticipatory afterimage of what has been.
Philosophers tell us that the present is that which is always disappearing, turning into something else as soon as we point to it. Conceptions of the absent present typically turn around the conceit that it is evasive, fleet of foot. We experience the immediate, they say, only as it slips past us. The moment we attempt to indicate a moment called Now, it is already Then. Neurologically speaking, however, we never experience the present as such; there is nothing to point to in the first place. The present is the one thing we literally cannot see. It designates nothing more than a blind spot in perception itself.
This is all to say that when we act, we do so not in response to what actually is, but to the ways we think things will be. When I cry in my dream, I likewise echo the presumed impact of my words, not their actual consequences. Like vision, relational empathy is a form of perception characterized by anticipation. As the empathetic act, they imagine the feelings their actions will elicit in others. They predicate their own subsequent movements on what might be felt, not on what is felt. While the lag in our visual apparatus is ultimately negligible, the temporality of empathy has real consequences. Far from a connection generated in the moment when we produce and display emotions, empathy is a form of projection in at least two senses. First and most obviously, we project our own emotional understandings onto the other. Second, we project those understandings forward in time, eliding the actual present of feeling. Insofar as it is projective, empathy – the very capacity that predicates human connection – institutes an interpersonal delay, a structural disconnect between us.
In speaking to others about my health – and I have spoken to so many others – I have grown accustomed to the responses it generates. I have seen so many crinkled brows, so many pursed lips. I have seen these expressions arise spontaneously, summoned up by the word “cancer” itself. Knowing what is to come, I feel what will be felt, and I shape my story accordingly. As I speak, I make myself smile, cutting possible futures off at the pass. A simulation plays out within: At first I feel what I imagine they will feel and then I feel what I would like them to feel instead. Having been sick, I set out to make others well. Ultimately sending rather than receiving, I often leave little room for myself.
In spite of all this, empathy remains a form of care. Indeed, it is in anticipation that we are most careful: Feelings take time to set in, and it takes longer still for them to cross the void that separates you and me, me and you. Distantly aware of this fact, we feel for one another in advance, reaching out across the gap. Without such a capability, we could not live together at all, as we would always be arriving too late on the scene of sadness. We live every day with this paradox: The very capacity that facilitates community keeps us at a distance from one another, a distance in time if not in space.
Shall we fault ourselves for avoiding the present? Are we wrong to let life unfold in the convolution of “was” with “might be”? Perhaps not. I, for one, have come to distrust immediacy. My cancer played out in a perpetual present. And when I flee from my anxiety, I defer an uncertain future in favor of a familiar now. It is in the present that I have felt least alive, least powerful, least myself. Where we are normally blind to the present, embracing the moment can only blind us to everything that surrounds it. Live in the now and you will find yourself frozen, incapable of seeing, feeling, acting.
In my dream, by contrast, paralysis lasts only as long as it takes me to think these thoughts. I finish my story clumsily, rushing along so as to get to the pleasant parts more quickly. To my surprise, no one seems moved. I have empathically misjudged their own inclination toward empathy. As I sit, it dawns on me that the tears I cried belonged neither to me nor to my audience. And yet, in my dream, those unowned tears have pooled all around me, indistinguishable from the saline sea.
Still asleep, I wade into the surf.