The Pain of Empathy

Note: I wrote the following about five days after the Newtown shootings. It’s something that I sat on privately since then, until the Boston Marathon bombings. I’ve added a bit to it now in the light of this event, and decided to actually post it.

Louis C.K. once did a bit that talked about how much you change after you've had kids. In the bit, he said that having kids makes you completely re-evaluate concepts like love. That the love you feel for your kid is so strong, so powerful, that it makes you go back and feel love for people in other times. That's how powerful it is.

My son is 20 months old. He's our first kid. My husband and I are incredibly happy. When we announced we were having a kid, all of our kid-owning friends did that really annoying thing where they tell you with big, stupid grins how much your life is going to change. As if you don't know — I mean, what idiot doesn't know that your life will change when you have a kid, right?

I got that my life would change. But I wasn't prepared for the power of that change. After I had my son, I remembered Louis C.K.’s bit about kids and your capacity for love, and suddenly I felt like I really got that bit. I couldn't have gotten it before — I thought I did, but I wasn’t even close. but I so got it now, and I felt like Louis C.K. was the only person who had ever articulated what that change actually means.

And that's where the Newtown shootings come in. They happened on the other side of the country from me. I don't know any of the kids or adults who died, or anyone even remotely connected to the shooting. And yet, every time I even think one small thought about it, I choke up and become completely paralyzed, way way way beyond what I think I'm supposed to feel. I knew that having a kid would mean that my outlook on these things would change, but I wasn't prepared for the sheer magnitude of that change.

In the same way Louis C.K. says you feel a wholly different capacity for love, I now realize that your capacity for fear goes well beyond your wildest imagination once you become a parent. Everything bad that happens to a kid in the world happens to my kid in my head, because that seems to be the curse of becoming a parent in a world in which horrible things are splashed on the news every day. (And yes, we severely limit our news exposure.)

And what I want to know is this: how the fuck do parents go through this world and look at their children and not live in a constant state of paralyzing, numbing fear every moment of every day, wondering if your child is going to be shot to death by a maniac, or contract a terminal illness, or die in a car accident, or any number of horrible things like that? How do you not die of a massive, fear-fed aneurysm before your child turns five?

As a former scientist, I know the stats on this stuff. But my gut doesn't seem to care about the stats, even though I know they reassure me that this stuff isn't supposed to happen to most people. And it's my gut that seems to be feeling the brunt of it all.

When I had my kid, I got that bit about your capacity for love. And then Newtown happened, and everything I thought I got about parenting I suddenly didn't get anymore. And eventually, the ever-present thoughts about the event faded enough that they weren’t so ever-present anymore. And then eight-year-old Martin Richards died when his family took him to see the Boston Marathon.

Friends and well-meaning people tell me, “you just can’t think about it all the time. It’s not likely to happen to you, so why dwell on it?” But it isn’t always the thought that a child I read about in the news could have been my kid. It’s not the stats that I know make it unlikely for it to happen to my kid. It’s the crushing empathy I’m trying not to feel for the parents who just lost theirs. It’s the inability not to place myself in their shoes for a moment, the inability to keep this freakishly analytical mass of gray matter in my head from running little holographic simulations of what it would be like if I had to hear the news that my child was just shot to death in school, or that my son had just been blown apart by a bomb. And those little simulations that I can’t seem to stop from running produce feelings and emotions that aren’t simulations at all.

I feel dumb as a parent even expressing this. Because it feels like something every parent has to be experiencing all the time, but somehow they’re able to shove this mind-numbing problem down into some secret recess, and I haven’t figured out how to do that yet.

I can’t even bear the empathy, so how could I possibly ever bear it at all if it ever happened to us? I try to reassure myself that it is that capacity for so much empathy that is the mark of a good parent. That I’ll be passing on that trait to my child, and that empathy is so badly needed in this world today. But sometimes it feels like a curse, that the depth of love that you feel for your child must come with the burden of feeling that loss so deeply when any child is lost.