I was in my 40s by the time I realized the average person doesn’t feel things like I do — not even close. Up until then, I always just assumed that when people were around someone who was feeling some sad or angry or even extremely happy, they felt that shit too.
I’m not talking about how it’s sad to be around someone who’s sad or how it can pick you up if you’re around someone who’s happy. I’m talking about feeling deep in your soul the exact same pain another person is feeling as if you, yourself, were feeling it.
I never knew how to describe it, but it happened again tonight. It happens all the time, so tonight isn’t anything out of the ordinary. It’s just another night. My wife gave my younger son, Jonah, a gift yesterday to thank him for helping take care of her while she is recovering from foot surgery. It’s a little book lamp shaped like a snitch from the world of Harry Potter.
For the uninitiated, a snitch is a little golden ball with wings. Well, the day after receiving the gift, one of the wings broke and was barely dangling. Jonah tried to glue it on. Hot glue. Super glue. Nothing worked.
And I felt that. I felt his sadness and his disappointment. I’m a 47-year-old man and I’m feeling the exact emotions of a 12-year-old. That’s a problem.
For so, so many years, I wondered why other people seemed to be so much better able to deal the intensity of things like this than I was. But that’s not the type of question you ask of people. It’s not really even the type of question you can put into words.
Then, sometime in the middle of the last decade, someone told me: “John. You’re an empath. And a really strong empath.”
An excuse me? A what?
I spent the next few months learning about empaths. It was like reading my biography. How empaths feel things others feel. How empaths attract people, even total strangers, who offload their problems on them. (Side note: My most recent example of this is a woman working at a cleaners who detailed her horrible day and challenging life — unprompted, mind you — while I was just trying to pick up some dress pants upon which I’d accidentally poured honey.) How the general energy of your household or community or society can weigh them down. (Side note No. 2: Imagine what a global pandemic does to us weirdos.)
There’s so much in the empath literature about shielding — things we can do to keep other’s shit off of us. It’s basically the idea of creating a cocoon around yourself or turning the volume down from 11 to, say, 4. The problem I was having — and still have — is a lot of that doesn’t work for me. I don’t appear to be a good caterpillar, and my volume knob seems to have been snapped off set at 15.
Oh, there are some things that most definitely work. But they’re not exactly healthy. Whiskey can work wonders for a while. So does chasing after experiences that create a good little happy-chemical hit. Both lead to dark, dark places, I’ve learned.
The reality is, the world is not a happy place. Different spiritualities will try to tell you that it is — or at least that that’s the stuff on which you need to focus. For me, that’s like trying to focus on the lone surviving blade of grass in an entire city that’s been leveled by bombs. Sure, it’s there, but will you just freaking zoom out a bit and take a look around!?!? Human beings — supposedly the only fully self-aware and truly intelligent species out there –are also the only species that hurts others for sport and not survival. I’m pretty sure there’s a lesson in that for those who cling to a higher power that supposedly thinks we’re something special.
So I struggle with the onslaught of these feelings and emotions. Some days — some weeks — it is just relentless. And we haven’t even gotten to the part where we consider the emotions I experience for myself and my own life situations. I seem to be hardwired to feel those pretty damn spectacularly too.
I find some comfort around people on the same end of the Weird Spectrum I inhabit. But even then, not only do I feel them but also all the other thems they themselves are carrying around and trying unsuccessfully to shield.
Listen. I get it. This is all some pretty woo-woo shit. We’re taught from an early age we have five senses, which appears to me to be a big factor in why there are so many of us weirdos. Were we taught earlier that the stuff we feel is a form of a sixth (and seventh and eighth) sense, perhaps we’d be more mainstream and be equipped with better tools to deal with this from a younger age.
Because now I’m trying to not only overcome the reality of being an empath but decades of conditioning that defined for me what “normal” was and what men are and aren’t supposed to be.
So where do I turn to figure all this shit out and live the rest of my life with more serenity than I’ve had during the first part?
I’m open to suggestions.
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