Register Thursday | March 22 | 2018

What Have You Settled For?

Practicing empathy

What do you do to dull the pain? Not even deep, ingrained to your personality and being, imbedded deep with your psychological makeup pain; just the pain of living day to day. Say the pain you get just from walking out your front door, or the sting of being cast off, of not living up to your potential, or seeing yourself as set upon by things much bigger than yourself.

I don’t know what other people do; I’m not sure how others deal with this or even if they know what I’m talking about. I was asked by Bob a few months ago what my one talent was, defined as the one thing innate within me, that I do better than anyone else. He failed to define what his was, sending me into fits of analysis and overthought, what the fuck was it? It should be something that defines me, as essential to my person as skin color, gender, sexual orientation, ontological conclusions or body type. Right? If I am better at it than anyone, or at least in relation to what theirs is, shouldn’t it be the thing I get paid for.

Here’s what I came up with, ambiguously: Mine has something to do with empathy. I can talk to someone for all of 5 minutes and understand much about their makeup, who they are, most importantly, what they are going through. Some form of transference, whatever you want to call it. I grieve when others grieve, I parasitically steal joy, I rob without stealing whatever pain, anguish, loss, white-hot seething anger, love, the painter’s pallet of human emotion is mine for the delving. And not when I choose, it just sort of happens.

At a younger age and stage in life I was accused of adapting the personality of anyone I was around. Probably, this was true, people are rarely wrong about such things. I was adaptive back then, but it also had to do with this sense of empathy I’m talking about. I could only spend finite periods of time in group settings before it became too much. The dominant personality would hit me, the insecurities of the rest of the kids, the need for acceptance, the safe haven that the herd provided as long as there was something beyond the circle to focus on, if not, they cannibalized themselves. Jennifer (my biological mother) likes to tell the story of my first day of school. Kids were out on the playground, I joined them, got along with everyone, ran around, participated. Then I just walked away. Off by myself, I guess I just wandered away. Jennifer says that I sat down, either in a sandbox or on the grass, and looked completely content and at ease. She says that from a very young age I was like that, seeking out the spaces between the crowds where I was off to myself. I think this stems from the empathy I’m talking about.

It’s like a vacuum cleaner that is always switched to “on.” The bag will eventually fill up and burst, and when it reaches capacity is when I need to walk away, find a space to myself, detox and let the back reform, give it some elasticity. I knew there was a caveat there, but it took a while to crystallize. But here it is: for some reason, all emotional hunger kind of feels the same to me. The emotions that I parasitically rip off those around me are the same as the panicked need to be away from the maddening crowds. If you need something, you need something, and everyone has their own roll call up. What catches my eye nowadays is not what I’m interested in—this sense of empathy that I possess makes me interested in all things, equally—but it is ticking off what I no longer care about. We all have our vices, the things we do to escape what pain we feel, but my escape pods are far less necessary than they used to be, mainly because, only just in the past 2 years, I’ve begun to manage the nozzle that sucks all this shit in.

I have a friend who lives in Chicago. He writes a blog called Upsidedown Blog (I would advise you check it out. He’s a nasty little talented shit full of piss and spit and verve, and is one of the few people I’m fairly sure experiences the world through a filter similar to my own.) He recently wrote about this sense of connection he gets from looking into other people’s windows, from staring at the lives he lives around, but knows nothing about. For me, it’s just the opposite. It’s why I watch as much as I do, why I go to coffee shops and stare, why the windows across the street hold so much interest for me. Because I don’t know these people, I can’t be overwhelmed by what they are going through. There is no empathy there; I can make up whatever I want to.

Even in crowds, surrounded by those I love and who love me, I can feel alone. Distinguish loneliness and isolation from alone, because they are not the same things. I have really only felt lonely two or three times in my life, but always have in my back pocket, carried around with me, this sense of being off to the side.

In a way, it helps explain what I do: interviewing people. I can put my subjects at ease quickly, engage them on a level they find important, set aside the cursory bullshit questions that most interviews begin with. (Allow me that quick brag... I'm done now.) In the questions I ask, I’m much for what they do as why the do it. Not what was put down, but what were they trying to put down. I guess this makes me something of a Methodist.

But I’m very late in understanding what my gifts are. There are people who would even argue whether this is even counts as a talent, but they’d be out of bounds. We all know what we are good at, because we are good at it. I’m not talking about what people fool themselves to believe, or justify a set of given actions—you know the type, the person who buys into a law of averages of how often they do or don’t do something, “I may have done that, but I’m not that kind of person.” You may not know what your true talent is, but you certainly recognize the moments when you are good at something.

It’s like Brian Wilson said, some of us just aren’t made for this world. I don’t know if I entirely buy into that, but I certainly know what it feels like, and if this post does not make sense, it’s because I don’t talk about any of this. Ever.

It’s why I always want to leave places, seek company as much as I seek solitude, engage and remove myself simultaneously. Why I always dream of leaving instead of trying to figure out what staying would mean to me. After all, what would I actually do if I stay?

I used to do everything to escape the pain… no, not pain, the discomfort, the sense of agitation that this caused. I piled vice on top of vice—and vices are good things, and you should define yourself by your vices you are often better off; people who define themselves as viceless are annoying with virtue—I tried everything I could to dull, or escape, or counter the build up. Only recently has this agitation become a positive thing for me. Sure, I am behind the curve to a degree, I’m only now, at 28, beginning to understand what I am truly good at, what is innate in me and how that translates into any form of a skill. Now the trick is to take the infinite things I’m interested in and try to fixate on one, at least for the sake of parent’s sanity, because you can’t walk around the world being interested in all things all the time, taking them in and building them up, to the point that they explode within you, leaving trace vapor trails across your mind. I have an instinct that, despite all the examples and advice I have to the contrary, that I can be this way and manage a career, a life, an existence worth something.

It’s starting to make sense to me, in a very weird way, though I still approach it stubbornly, kicking and screaming the entire way. It has always been one of my biggest secrets, the empathy thing. It also explains, to a degree, why the first time I would ever verbalize it would not be to a friend, or partner, or sibling, or parent or anyone else that I might know, but rather right here. In this space. Besides, I'd rather not waste this gift, if I'm even right about it in the first place. Because that would be worse than settling, than selling out.

So I guess my meanderingly long-winded, and perhaps not entirely crystaline point is this: Over a month ago Bob asked me a question that really fucked with my head. So what is your talent? What is the one thing you are better at than anything else, than anything most other people do? If you can identify it, how does it apply to how you make a living? Have you sacrificed any part of this gift because you can't find a way to fit it in? Because that would be a fucking tragedy.