Monday, October 20, 2008

Empathy

It has been so long since I've posted here. I won't get into why.

empathy.

1.the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.
2.the imaginative ascribing to an object, as a natural object or work of art, feelings or attitudes present in oneself: By means of empathy, a great painting becomes a mirror of the self.

The other day, I wondered if I was too nice. The question is not unfamiliar to me; I will stumble across it from time to time.

Don't get me wrong. I am not afraid to fight for my loved ones, or for my life--this fact have been proven to me. I am stubborn and strong-willed, and like a tired old plow horse, I know that no matter what I encounter, I will trudge on. When I lived in Chicago, I was one of those fools that would go running through Humboldt Park after dark. The worse the weather, the more alone I was and the better the run. I have a sweet memory of my feet treading fresh lonely tracks through fallen snow and the steam of my hard breaths shooting out of my mouth as if I were a locomotive. And indeed, I felt as strong as one. I know I can be as strong as one.

But...

I am empathetic, maybe to a fault. I love to listen to the problems of others, and will rack my brain for any possible solutions to these problems. One part of me expects the same kindness from others while another, larger, part of me expects disappointment. I do not trust. I do not want to burden. I am always ready to help, but you won't see me asking for it in return. Despite my armor, I will decide to trust again at random moments, naively expecting to see the same sort of empathy and kindness that I believe in. It rarely ever happens.

Society is ever-cynical. I just can't follow along.

I realized the other day that those who work with the deaf are typically more empathetic than the general population. I had interpreters for high school and college classes. My college has a strong American Sign Language degree program and a small but fierce group of deaf culture supporters. The majority of these supporters are not deaf. Since I was close in age to my interpreters, I became friends with a few of them. I found them to be passionate about, and for, the rights and equality of deaf people.

I was a Fiction Writing major. My classes each had about a dozen or so students and, per the so-called story workshop method, we would sit in a semi-circle around the teacher. I was almost always on one end, near the interpreter (who sat next to the teacher). Each student was supposed to make a copy of his or her work, or give his or her work to the teacher so copies could be made.

Like English to Chinese, exact translation from English to American Sign Language is impossible. In order to properly follow the language and voice of a story, I needed my own copy to read from while the author was reading aloud. Other than unintentionally reading pages and pages ahead of the author and being stricken with panic when the teacher asked me about a certain part of the story, a section that had unfortunately faded from memory immediately after being read ten moments prior (“Heidi! What do you think was clear about Bobby meeting Sue?” When Bobby met Sue? Shit, that was…5 pages ago! Think Heidi, think…THINK!”Um, the uh, emotion of the moment was, um, clear?”), the method worked well.

But even artsy-fartsy liberal arts professors are resistant to changing old ways. A few teachers forgot, or even balked at, the idea of making photocopies for me to read. They could not wrap their strictly right brains around the fact that, as anyone who has visited Engrish.com knows, one language being translated to another can results in goofs or miscommunication, especially when done on the fly by hardworking, tired interpreters.

I was upset. The interpreters were even more upset. It was not their place to let the teacher know but at times, they did. I never faulted them for doing so.

These same people were often animal lovers. Despite living in big Chicago, they took pleasure in the simple, beautiful things in life. They were friendly and sympathetic—not just towards the deaf, but people in general. They all had many friends. They were empathetic.

Is it because, more so than other people, they knew that the deaf—considered by many to be a voiceless bunch—actually had a lot to say? Were they empathetic to start with? I think so. I have found that my closest friends are more empathetic and more open to new ideas and experiences than others. I do not have close friends that are cold and uncaring simply because I find them intolerable—it’s because these people don’t think I am worth getting to know.

At one time, the deaf were considered quite stupid—no smarter than a bag of rocks. No hearing devices and no sign language meant a totally silent, mute world. No effort was made to communicate with or educate the deaf. As a result we have the lovely phrase of “deaf and dumb”. As a child, I often had doors—both literal and figurative—slammed in my face because I was inferior to the other children, or so they believed. I was quickly taught that I was not fit for normal society.

And what did I do?

When I was born, my parents had three cats. One of them, an orange tabby named Tiger, was my best friend. Even before I lost my hearing, I was rarely apart from him. My first word was his name, and my one of my first memories is of following him around at a crawl. Before I ever knew what the words (or very many words, for that matter) meant, I recognized the old, wise soul within Tiger.

Shut away from human playmates, Tiger turned out to be the only friend I needed. He was patient and kind. He would follow me, and I followed him. I would talk to him and deep inside, I felt he knew what I was saying. When I cried, I would lay my head on his soft, dusky orange belly and sob into his fur. He would lay there, patient as ever, and quietly wait. Tiger was a vicious slayer of rabbits and would kill adults and babies alike. Tiger would chase any dog that entered our property. He would fight with neighboring cats (with the exception of a black and white tuxedo named Mittens). Yet he was so kind to me that he allowed me to put my pet mice on his back with nary a twitched whisker.

I didn’t just love him. I was in awe of him. He was my soul mate. He was a teacher—an educator of the ways of animals, of the workings of nature. He was voiceless yet he had so much to say. From him, I learned kindness and patience towards animals. I learned that a quiet movement spoke volumes to an attuned observer. When Tiger died a few days before his 17th birthday, a part of me died with him.

I still think about him. I still cry for him. He was such a large, special part of my juvenile life and frankly, I don’t know what I would have done without him.

It’s important to realize that just because animals do not speak the language of humans (nor should they have to), that they do not have anything to say. Take time to listen. Observe. Be empathetic.

1 comment:

Mom said...

Heidi - you have got to get this published!! I loved it!! Please send it in to some sort of publication, perhaps Cat Fancy.