Saturday, October 27, 2007


Why is empathy something people expect to see manifested in a very specific, prescribed way? Is it possible to empathize in a way that, although unorthodox, is still genuine?

The person I work for is wracked with worry. A man she knows professionally--someone I know peripherally--has been severely depressed for quite some time. He's in financial trouble, he cheated on his wife, she left him, and he started to fall apart when his wife got into a serious relationship with someone else. At that point, he ended the relationship with the woman he had been seeing while he was still married. Although he had no real problem cheating on his wife, he could not tolerate the thought of her being happy with someone else.

The guy has been in a downward spiral for a year. He was on medication but it didn't work and he didn't follow up with his doctor. He refused to go into therapy. His behavior has been erratic for months, and he has what I can only describe as an agitated depression.

He's been sending out clear suicide signals for weeks. My boss has repeatedly told me how worried everyone is. I haven't heard anything about what anyone was doing to actually help this man. But they're all very worried, very worried.

At some point in the middle of this week, he quit his job. Nobody has seen him, although he called at least two people and told them he needed to see them--just for 15 minutes--but he never showed. His wife had the police go over to his house, but although he wasn't there, nothing seemed amiss. I'm not sure what that means, exactly.

My boss was teary-eyed when she told me all of this yesterday. I kept a poker face. She implied I didn't care. I wasn't sure what to say. I have well-defined beliefs on this subject, and they tend to be unconventional. Finally I said, "People will do what they want to do. If he is going to kill himself, it has nothing at all to do with anyone except himself. He's in pain and he wants it to stop. Do you understand that?" She said she did, but I suspect she was still processing that. I went on, "Suicide isn't really something you do to other people; it's something you do for yourself. If he has refused help at every turn and made himself unavailable for intervention, then there's nothing to be done. He has made a decision, the decision that he doesn't want a future. As an adult, he has the right to do that. I would say that given the length and severity of his current emotional state, this is not an impulsive or unreasonable decision on his part. He has the right to decide when he's had enough, as do any of us."

My boss looked at me with a mix of distress and possible confusion. She started to say something and then she stopped. She thought my answer was detached and somewhat clinical. I assured her that, in fact, my empathy was very much intact and functioning. I reminded her that my perspective came from very personal experience. I thought about the difference between empathy and sympathy. Empathy is when you see the situation by imagining yourself in the other person's place. Sympathy is when you feel sorry for someone because they are in that situation.

Do I feel sorry for him? No, not really. I feel sad that he found himself in terrible pain but without the kind of support he needed. That's a completely new pain on top of one's suffering. I believe that's the root of my empathy. I understand how it feels to know that dying is a far more palatable option than any of the others before you. Nobody should be able to decide the outcome for you, although they will try--not necessarily out of love, but just on principle.

I guess we'll find out what happened on Monday.

1 comment:

Spilling Ink said...

Wow, May. I hope you share what has happened when you find out. I don't guess you will find out the root of his problem, though, which I can't help being curious about. I wonder if he really knows what it is. Sometimes it takes a while to find out and not everyone is in a position to hang around for that kind of information about themselves. It's often very painful.