My empathy is stunted.
Thus began my college essay. After reading it, my teacher tried to tell me that perhaps this was not the impression I wanted my admissions officers to have of me: a kid who did not give a fuck.
You don’t understand, I thought. That’s exactly what I mean.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve struggled to understand the emotions of others and display the ones I was supposed to feel. There were times when I would stare at the end credits hearing sobs and sniffles in the dark, wondering why there weren’t tears in my eyes, times when I would cross paths with someone who had recently gone through a personal tragedy, and I would frantically scramble to come up with the right response, thinking: what would my sister say in my place?
And there were times when a disaster would rock the entire world or the nation, and I would not be affected at all — I wouldn’t even feel righteous anger on behalf of the victims or sorrow for their families. I would take note of the little yellow ribbons on my classmates’ shirts and bags, scroll through my Facebook page skimming reports of the sinking of a ferry carrying three hundred passengers, hear my friends heatedly discuss the incompetence of our president and starting a fundraiser for the victims’ families. I would search inside myself and come up with nothing.
Almost everyone I knew changed their social media profile pictures to signal their support. I couldn’t find it in myself to even pretend that I cared.
This year was notable in that I was deeply affected by the American presidential election — which is strange, because I wasn’t even that bothered by the corruption scandals plaguing my own president in Korea. Like many, I attended the protests, a plastic candle in my gloved hand, walking in the dark with thousands of people chanting: Out with the President. In the midst of the crowd, instead of a sense of solidarity, I felt a strange sense of displacement and alienation: I did not belong here. I felt no personal connection to the cause or the people around me. I was safely cocooned in my middle class privilege, unaffected by the president’s incompetence. I had no reason to be there other than the fact that everyone else was, and I had felt compelled as a member of the liberal millennial generation to participate. I could not identify with the passion, devotion, and energy of the crowd. I felt disgusted with myself.
It’s not as simple as political apathy. I don’t have deep feelings for the people in my life — not because I put myself before them, but because thoughts about them occupy a limited space in my head. Every time my friend would end a relationship, have an argument with her parents, or feel stressed about her future, I would be there to listen but feel nothing. Instead of validating or empathizing with her feelings, I would try to seek practical solutions, identifying several courses of action she could take to improve her situation — because that, I could do.
An unmovable rock, said one about me. Level-headed, said another. What they might not understand is that my apparent emotional stability doesn’t stem from a healthy management of feelings but a lack of them.
In high school, Mom would have periods of depression that would affect the entire household. Dad would quietly thank me for being mature and doing so well when it must be hard for me. It was unbearable. I would count down the hours until I could go back to school for the simple reason that I could forget that Mom was depressed. I didn’t even feel bad about leaving Dad alone to deal with Mom.
What was the reason? Was it me? What was she thinking? What would make her feel better? This would motivate me to drive myself harder, harder, harder in schoolwork, until it became an ingrained part of me. But I had no answers to these questions. I felt like I was personally failing Mom with my inability to understand. I could not feel her depression, only the effects of it in the household.
Every time she got worse, I would repeat: Lightly child, lightly.* This was my mantra, my coping mechanism. Whenever I felt overwhelmed with an intense emotion, or more often, whenever I found my surroundings overwhelming, I would repeat: Lightly, child, lightly. I would disengage myself from my situation, physically extracting myself or putting more distance between the object if necessary. I would disengage myself from my emotions, imagining an eraser wiping out everything in my mind until all that was left was a merciful blank. Writing would help: I would write for hours until I couldn’t come up with the words anymore, until I felt numb, drained, and empty.
My experience with emotional intensity so far has not been that great: I would feel searing, blind rage or crippling guilt, disappointment, grief. This doesn’t mean I was unhappy — I have always considered myself to be the opposite. Happiness for me means a lack of negative feelings. The majority of my experience with positive emotional intensity has been relief: immense relief at having fulfilled some expectation, having averted a fight, having cemented my academic position.
So I would carefully cultivate an environment that would not be emotionally overwhelming for me. I would limit the number of my friends so that I was invested in these few, but the rest of my peers were acquaintances I did not care about. I would avoid spending too much time at home because that was where many of my unbearably overwhelming incidents happened. I would not pursue a relationship, because sometimes even my few friendships overwhelmed me — a relationship would ruin me.
Coming to college, having been finally freed from my family, I was ready to start caring about causes. I was hoping that Yale’s empathy-driven campus culture would rub off on me, that I would become a bit more empathetic. I joined the Effective Altruists and felt immediately connected to the movement, not only because I had been a big fan of Peter Singer since high school but also because here was a cause that suited me: I didn’t need empathy to do the right thing. I donated to various organizations, became vegan, and took a pledge to give a part of my future income.
Did I care?
I don’t really empathize with the millions of animals that are inhumanly slaughtered or people suffering from hunger and disease in remote countries. I simply find the logic of Singer’s philosophy convincing. My motives are purely rational, not emotional.
In a recent discussion, someone pointed out that the movement needs empathy, that people should not just donate but also care about and get to know the recipients. Another asked how someone donating thousands of dollars to nameless strangers would not give that same consideration to a homeless person asking for money right in front of him.
I felt deeply uncomfortable. I had embraced the movement because it doesn’t require me to be a caring person. I have no desire to get to know the people I am donating to — and I pass by homeless people every day without feeling guilty.
What does that make me?
Sometimes I wonder if I have felt all that I will ever feel, if I lack the capacity to feel more. Other times, I find myself wishing I could be more empathetic. After all, to be human is to feel. I should open myself up to situations that I know will make me feel more. I should try to feel connected to more people and more causes. I may inherently lack empathy, but I can develop it with time and experience. I know this.
Whether I actually will is a different matter.
* “It’s dark because you are trying too hard.
Lightly child, lightly. Learn to do everything lightly.
Yes, feel lightly even though you’re feeling deeply.
Just lightly let things happen and lightly cope with them.
I was so preposterously serious in those days, such a humorless little prig.
Lightly, lightly — it’s the best advice ever given me.
When it comes to dying even. Nothing ponderous, or portentous, or emphatic.
No rhetoric, no tremolos,
no self conscious persona putting on its celebrated imitation of Christ or Little Nell.
And of course, no theology, no metaphysics.
Just the fact of dying and the fact of the clear light.
So throw away your baggage and go forward.
There are quicksands all about you, sucking at your feet,
trying to suck you down into fear and self-pity and despair.
That’s why you must walk so lightly.
Lightly my darling,
on tiptoes and no luggage,
not even a sponge bag,