I cry all the time. I’m starting to come to terms with this constant state of waterworks, and pretty much cry whenever the urge hits me. But unless you live under a rock, you know – the news is bad. I’ve been watching the flooding of Houston very closely. I have family there, and my aunt who lost her home to flooding in May 2016 – in fact, only moved back into her beautiful rebuilt home about three months ago – has lost her home again. I want to say that I can’t imagine how painful it must be to lose your home, not once, but twice – in less that eighteen months – but I can. I’m a very strong empath, and in addition to absorbing the emotions of those around me, I have a very easy time imagining their pain and heartache. This can cause me to turn away and disengage from the news, or, I’m ashamed to say, occasionally from loved ones who I know are in pain. After all, if you’re sharing someone’s pain to such an extent, your ability to help is limited.
This is called Empathic Distress, when you empathize with others to the point that you are paralyzed by pain and sadness. Those of us who are prone to Empathic Distress have to be very careful about the kinds of media we consume. I used to think I was crazy because every time I watched a sad movie, I would cry for days. Every time I thought about whatever the sadness in the movie was, I would start up again. Now, I just don’t watch sad movies. A while ago, there was an image circulating of a little refugee boy who had drowned, and his body washed up on a beach in Europe. This picture haunted me for weeks. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw this picture. I saw it in my dreams. Being so deeply affected by every little thing can be very emotionally draining, making it seem like the best thing to do is to just not engage. It can make you feel anxious (god, there’s a lot of stuff that can make a person feel anxious). It can create feelings of depression and hopelessness.
So what do we do? I know I’m not the only one out there who has these issues. Yogi and neuropsychologist Bo Forbes coined the term Empathic Distress, so we know there are probably lots of people out there who suffer so deeply with those who are suffering. My first instinct is to turn away, to disengage. It’s self defense. I think, “It’s too hard,” and, “It’s too sad, I can’t do it.” I think that’s ok, to an extent. After all, I have to protect what mental health I do have. But no one can do this all the time. Turning away every time somebody is in pain kind of makes you an asshole. Also, your pain and distress is now compounded with guilt for not helping, not doing something when you could.
I’m trying to learn to be better, and do better. I’m trying to act from the huge depth of compassion I feel for those who are in pain. First, I do limit the media I take in. I try to stay informed, but not damage myself. If I see an headline that is just too sad, that will be too hard to read, I scroll past. If I feel like I need to cry, I cry. And I do something. It might not be a big something, but it’s something. Make the hard phone call. Donate a little. Even if it’s not a lot, I have to believe every little bit helps. Focus on the good. I insist, belligerently almost, that people are good. I know that in our deepest hearts, we all want the same thing: food, a safe home, and to care for our loved ones, and be cared for by them. These beliefs I hold true, and refuse to believe otherwise. I know those who deviate from this are the anomaly. They are the wrong ones. My belief transcends all boundaries of race, religion, gender, political affiliation. I don’t think for one minute that the helpers, the police and nurses and firemen and firewomen and regular samaritans – the people in Houston who rescued scores of stranded people and pets – asked these people about their political leanings before they helped them. They didn’t care who they were. Because in those moments they were all the same. They were human.