Empathy can hurt

Let’s be honest. It’s hard to deliberately subject yourself to pain. Which is what you’re doing if you’re an empathetic person, and you chose to go to a movie about a child who is abducted and murdered; or you read an in-depth article about the victims of a natural disaster or a terrorist attack; or your book club chooses to read and discuss a book about a someone’s mother dying of Alzheimer’s disease. I don’t think that I am unusual in often avoiding those heart-breaking movies, or those accounts of mass horror.

But, sometimes it is important, and good, to do so. To avoid these things is to cut yourself off from humanity.

So, a small example: My book club just read a book called Men We Reaped, by Jesmyn Ward. This is one of the saddest, most wrenching books I’ve read in some time. It is a memoir by a young black woman chronicling the tremendous losses she suffered over four years. Her brother, her cousin and three friends died young from various causes, all of which she ultimately chalks up to racism. She grew up in rural Mississippi, poor and disadvantaged, but with strong community bonds. These young men, up against so many obstacles, all died young. Drugs, guns, sure, we readers are familiar with those scourges of the poor and the oppressed. But how does racism cause her friend C.J. to die in a car accident with a train? Well, it’s in a poor, rural black part of Mississippi, where the authorities wouldn’t pay for crossing guards or lights, where a thick fog can roll in from the gulf and totally obscure the train tracks crossing the road. Because they just don’t care. But we do, after reading Ward’s vivid descriptions of each of these young men. We get to know each of them as the beautiful, complex people that they were.

It’s more than she can bear. How could anyone? She shares the overwhelming pain with us, and makes us understand the larger picture. Listen to her: “And in the end, I know little, some small facts: I love Joshua [her brother]. He was here. He lived. Something vast and large took him, took all of my friends: Roger, Demond, C.J., and Ronald. Once, they lived. We tried to outpace the thing that chased us, that said: You are nothing. We drank too much, smoked too much, were abusive to ourselves, to each other. We were bewildered. There is a great darkness bearing down on our lives, and no one acknowledges it.”

This book was so hard to read, and it was so important to do so.

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