Learning Empathy by Facing the Forever-Empty
Click on the link above to hear an improvisation that captures the tragic comedy of modern life.
I’ve touched on the topics of trauma and silence in my struggle to get Margaret to audible speech with paralyzed vocal cords. Trauma is an event that is so unexpected and overwhelming that it cannot be integrated immediately integrated into a narrative or world view. Death and near-death can be this way too– refusing to be predicted or explained. Silence resists integration too. Resisting integration is not a bad thing. In fact, steeping in silence, mystery, and the moment of time rather than its continuum can lead to full aliveness.
I observed two things when she couldn’t cry or make noise and doctors would not make any predictions about her future ability to speak although they did feel confident she could hear and understand everything that would be said.
The first was that she had an exponential amount of facial expressions that played off others around her. Whereas other two-year-olds were engaged in parallel play, happy in their own worlds and angered when someone interrupted them by taking a toy, Margaret was very engaged at watching other people and mimicking their facial expressions. Babies do this as part of pre-speech. What was interesting to me is that Margaret was developmentally more sophisticated than this stage and her facial expressions and seeming ability to read others progressed with her level of understanding. This ability only progressed as she learned sign language. She had learned to communicate non-verbally and to get other people’s attention through active listening. Now that she speaks, she still shows an extraordinary amount of empathy. So Louis C.K.’s description of how kids learn empathy resonates with me.
As adults, we forget empathy sometimes, especially when we fear silence. The second part of Louis C.K.’s interview touches on the mystery that lies between two people or between an individual and the rest of creation. For all the experiences and emotions there are to empathize with , there is also the unknowableness of another person. Sometimes, the closer that person is, the harder it is for us to see them beyond our needs and projections. Learning sign language to communicate with Margaret brought me to this edge of relationship often. I mourned the inner life of hers she could never fully communicate with me. At the same time, I realized how at the center of every relationship is silence. That silence is scary, but as Louis C.K. suggests it may also be the thing we have most in common, a place from which our greatest efforts to relate, to create, to express, to give, and to free others comes. We act injustly when we text too quickly to avoid it or when we speak to freely about what we do know or believe and avoid what the silence tells us, that within it dwells not absence but the presence of everything, that silence is not to be mistaken for doubt but to be an invitation to know the G-d whom you cannot make up, the divine no-thing that Christian, Jew, and Muslim, among others, revere.