When my daughter was about three and a half (yes, the “Never Give a Duck a Scarf” era again) our bedtime reading one night was a book called “Look Out for the Big Bad Fish!” It was the story of a little tadpole who is impatient with the length of time it takes to move on into being a frog. He acts out by disobeying his mother during a succession of days, swimming farther each day down toward the forbidden section of the creek where the Big Bad Fish lives.
After numerous warnings from creatures he meets, one day he encounters the Big Bad Fish. Just as the fish is about to eat him, the tadpole miraculously jumps away…his legs have been growing little by little and now he is a frog. A happy ending, except perhaps for Darwin. At least I thought so, until I noticed my daughter looking up at me with a troubled expression. I asked her what was the matter. She fixed her big, serious eyes on me and said, “But the Big Bad Fish didn’t get any lunch.”
Empathy outside the box. I thought it was the cutest thing ever, and chalked it up to preschool-age philosophical musings. But it didn’t go away as she got older. My latest reminder of it came this spring, when we were going over a unit of medieval European history. It wasn’t a good time for Europe, and after giving the Inquisition a good going over she was ready to call it a day. Eager to finish the chapter we were in, I insisted on covering the Black Death as well.
The book only spent a few pages on it, mostly basics. Fleas on rats as transmission vectors, percentage of deaths, changes brought on by the lowered population. My daughter pronounced the 14th century the most depressing century ever. “Seriously, Mom? The Inquisition and the bubonic plague? Did anything good happen at all?” “Well,” I said, “there were some good effects of the plague. Serfs and peasants were treated better, because labor was in shorter supply.” She huffed in response. “Tell that to the poor grief-stricken fleas!”
“What?” I floundered. “The fleas, Mom. The ones that carried the plague on the rats. Think about how terrible they must have felt!” “THAT’S what you’re focusing on?” I came back. “What about all the people who died?” She sighed patiently. “Of course I feel sorry for them too. But they have plenty of sympathy, because everyone feels for them. The fleas are alone and guilty and nobody cares about them. Somebody needs to.”
Did I mention that she’s thirteen now? So this isn’t going away. Part of it was brought with her from wherever we obtain our unique spark, but if I am honest with myself I realize that she may get some of it from me. I’ve always been inclined to empathize with the “underdog” in the empathy ranking. It’s hard for me to explain that this doesn’t take away any of my feeling for those everyone else is championing. It’s a paradoxical feeling, and an uncomfortable one.
As a counselor it was sometimes my job to work with the “underdog.” The guy who hit his girlfriend and is going to anger management group; the mom in trouble with Child Protective Services. Situations where the “choosing sides” seems automatic and obvious. I was good at my job because I could do this strange mental twist that, while not thinking the behavior acceptable, let me feel for the suffering being played out in it. In that sense, it’s a good quality for me.
It’s also responsible for a few of my dirty secrets. For example, the recent “not guilty” verdict for George Zimmerman brought understandable outrage to many. My dirty secret is that beside my grief and outrage on Trayvon Martin’s behalf, there exists a corner of my psyche that feels something for Zimmerman. That feels some compassion for the scars his soul will bear, even unconsciously, and how what happened will affect his karmic path. This part of me has no wish to save him from the consequences of his actions. It’s not about that. But it does exist.
Another secret is one I’ve carried for almost twelve years now: my reaction to 9/11 had these paradoxical qualities too. I felt ashamed of my thoughts. How could I admit to anyone that I thought about the pilots? That, even before any information was released, I wondered what kind of lives had prepared them to kill and die? That I imagined them waking up in some kind of afterlife that didn’t match what they were taught would await them, and what betrayal and guilt and despair they might feel as they gained clarity?
I don’t know where my daughter’s unique type of empathy will take her. I don’t always know where mine will take me. In the past I have misused it at times when hurt by someone; it was easier to overempathize than to face my own anger and my fear of confrontation. Today I have a more honest relationship with my anger, but the tendency to identify with the unlikely remains. Maybe I can learn to use it to help others again, knowing that someone who feels themselves irretrievably condemned by all is unlikely to change. Or maybe I’ll start a flea survivors’ guilt therapy group.