Am I empathetic, sympathetic, compassionate?

September 04, 2017

Am I empathetic, sympathetic, compassionate?.... Yes, yes, yes, and too much… far too much. This is not a humble-brag, it’s a problem. I’m a second-generation finder of strays and misfits. I’m chronically incapable of giving up on anyone, even when I should. I don’t get frustrated with people and toss them aside. I don’t say “no” when I’m asked to do an inconvenient thing that helps another person. I don’t have an internal bitch I can switch on when a man is talking to me and I don’t want to be bothered; for some reason, I’m still polite and personable even as I say no thank you. I don’t think this makes me a better person than other women. I don’t think empathy and compassion put me ahead in any way. Sometimes I really wish I didn’t care so much what happens to people and animals and, for God’s sake, inanimate objects that I anthropomorphize, choosing to take the dented can that nobody else will buy or the stuffed animal with the defect that no other kid will love.

Extreme empathy is a kindness to everyone else but a cruel joke to the person giving it. It’s not that I don’t have boundaries; it’s that, even when I recognize the need for boundaries and turn away or refuse or say not this time, I’m still deeply troubled over the person in need— particularly when I know that nobody else will be likely to give of themselves to the needy person the way I do.

Having a strong set of street smarts but an overly compassionate compulsion means that I’m very difficult to take advantage of intellectually but very easy to take advantage of emotionally. I’m a sucker for the broken. I’ve stood by men who were clearly no good because I saw their potential glimmering just under the surface, and I felt guilty at the very idea of leaving them alone in their pain. I’ve put up with friends that everyone else has moved on from because I see the value in them behind the messiness and mayhem. I’ve stayed up countless nights fretting about people I’ve never met whom I’ve heard were in distress.

There are certain movies and certain scenes that I simply can’t even watch because they devastate me too much. It’s exhausting to care so much about so many living things so much of the time. If I could temper my empathy, siphon off the extra and give it to people who manufacture too little, I would— the way mothers have throughout the centuries with their breast milk. If I could take a pill to suppress my sympathy… that would be mighty appealing. If I could clock in and be compassionate from 9-6, 40 hours a week with a one-hour lunch break, I might choose to.

Yet I have to believe there’s a reason I was given such an overdose of care and sympathy. I hope it’s been helpful, that it’s made the world a little bit brighter for at least a few people. And on a purely self-serving level— if anything compassionate and empathetic can also be self-serving— I think that ability to meet the minds and cares of other humans has made me a better artist and a wiser person. I hope my exhausting capacity to care does more good than harm.

By Nichole Jaymes 

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