Confessions of An Empathy Junkie
Addicted to Empathy
By Daniel Elasky
Oh, I’m a saint all right. I love all creatures great and small. I feel others’ pain. Addicted to empathy, you might say.
I try to live my life according to the Golden Rule. If I’m undercharged for something at the grocery store, I inform the checkout clerk because I know that otherwise, they’ll have to make up the difference from their own pocket. If I have to, I’ll even drive six miles back to the store to make things right.
And I can’t forget to mention the skating. My Grandma and I could not watch the ice skating in the last Winter Olympics. We knew we’d be terrified that a skater would fall, and we knew what heartbreak they would be going through, 4 years of training down the drain and the end of their dream. Instead, Grandma turned on an infomercial for old Lawrence Welk reruns. Did you know that Mr. Welk as a boy bought his first accordion with money he earned trapping muskrats?
Finally, I must mention the time I actually stopped traffic in a parking lot so I could rescue a praying mantis that was sitting cluelessly in the middle of the way as cars bore down on him. As I said, all creatures great and small.
Are you ready to gag from all this niceness? I can’t blame you. But thereisa point to it. Okay, let’s break and gather again in five minutes.
Now, I’ve told you about my saintly behavior.
(Of course, if you knew my many shortcomings — I’m basically one big shortcoming — but that is a subject for another occasion. My memoirs, perhaps, but what do I have to remember?)
The point I want to make is that it’s important for a writer (or anyone, actually) to empathize with people, their loves, hates, and goals, and the reasons for their sometimes odd behavior. I try to remind myself that there are no boring people (well, except my uncle Harry, may he rest in peace).
Sometimes I see someone and think, “I never want to have anything to do with a person like that.” Maybe they are scruffy, or rude, or pear-shaped, or even a person of the streets.
If I catch myself, I do a mental exercise. I ask: what if I were alone — literally, all alone — in the universe — and happened to come across this very person?
To my forlorn and lonely self, they would instantly become the dearest thing in the universe. And when we stopped hugging each other, I would want to know all about them: their joys and sorrows, their memories, and everything else.
I call this my “empathy exercise.” When I’m writing a story and realize that one of my characters is little more than a stick figure that I’m manipulating like a marionette (and it shows), I do the same exercise. I want to understand them from theirpoint of view.
It’s helped me develop interesting, engaging characters — if not completely sympathetic ones. The story will be much stronger because of it.
Even more important, it’s helped me become a more tolerant and better person.