One of my favorite guests on the Howard Stern Show
is a woman who goes by the nickname of Crazy Alice
earned this sobriquet by the incredible rages
she would go into when provoked by callers to the show. She would string together the most amazing combinations of insults on the fly, all the while avoiding the seven words you can't say on the radio
. In between insults, she would shout, Shut up ass!
You don't know my pain!
As L rips off the old band-aids covering past and recent traumas, she, or one or more of her parts/people, will accuse me of the most obtuse self-centeredness when I clumsily try to express my sympathy for her. It's like talking to a Nazi concentration camp survivor. What do you say? Gee, I'm real sorry that your entire family was exterminated leaving you with nothing but the memories of your own torture The human thing to do would be to take that person in your arms and hold them tight for all it's worth, but that?s not really possible between L and myself right now.
Like many men, when the people I love suffer, I like to try and "fix" things, so I, more often than not, do manage to put my foot in my mouth. The other day L launched a vitriolic attack in my direction for a supposed insensitivity that singed my eyebrows. Most of the time she is nothing but appreciative for any attempt I make at comforting her. But when her pain is ratcheted up high enough, her reaction is quite different, like women who love their husbands, but curse them in the labor room, using expletives that would make a longshoreman blush.
All of this got me to thinking about empathy and its inverse function the ability to recognize that another has thoroughly empathized with our suffering.
To empathize is relatively simple. Given that every one suffers pain, each individual has an extensive library of memories of pain and the facial expressions, vocalizations, and body postures they displayed at specific times, in specific contexts. When that person sees another person in pain-- their facial expressions and the like-- she recalls her own pain and associates it with "the other". Empathy is a straightforward, if complex, pattern-recognition task.
The converse of empathy would involve retrieving memories of having been the object of other's sympathy with the associated facial expressions, vocalization, touches, etc..
This would explain something that I have repeatedly experienced that the most caring and compassionate people often have the greatest difficulty in experiencing themselves as the object of others' sympathy. If you have been the object of pervasive cruelty, you are an expert on the many nuances of pain, but are a stranger to sympathy. You do not know, or are not comfortable with the idea, that others know and regret your pain. Sympathy becomes one more tool in the torturer's arsenal.