Empathy: the ability to identify with or vicariously experience thoughts, feelings of another.
If you watched the Academy Awards show to its end, you caught Lady Gaga’s moving tribute to victims of sexual assault on college campuses. The song told us repeatedly that “you can’t know how I feel because you did not experience what happened to me.”
The ability to do precisely that is what being human is all about. Empathy is at the core of all art—witness Munch’s “The Scream” or Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture.” But it is never stronger than in the literary arts. I need not engage in patricide or incest to relate to the terrible anguish Oedipus suffers on discovering he has killed his father and lain with his mother. Nor do I need to lose a rebellious, treacherous child whom I have loved dearly to understand the depth of sheer pain in David’s cry, “Absalom! Absalom! Oh, my son Absalom!” It is empathy that allows me to share Wordsworth’s feeling of humility and wonder as he is overwhelmed by the beauty and grandeur of that scene near Tinturn Abbey.
On a much more mundane level, it is empathy that brings the audience to share the scariness of scenes in a horror film or the eroticism in a romance novel. Isn’t that why we choose the films we see and the books we read? We want to share, to feel vicariously. Perhaps this is what Aristotle really had in mind with the term catharsis.
So, yes, you survivors of the unspeakable—I do feel your pain. Of course, I am grateful that I am not suffering it directly, but that fact in no way lessens my understanding of what you suffered—nor my empathy in sharing the pain you still endure—NOR my sincere hope that you can move so far beyond it that your experience comes to be but another “something” you endured and learned from. In learning from heinous experiences, let us hope the “lessons” are not so much about the physical reality of the abuse one has suffered, but that we realize our own resilience and ability to move far beyond it.
Everyone—everyone—has scars and handicaps. Some of them show; some of them don’t. So, please, do not underestimate another’s ability to understand the pain.