The following is a personal response to the poem “Empathy” by Stephen Dunn.
It’s a different kind of empathy. I’m not selfless, kind, or patient. I don’t push aside my problems to listen to others. It’s a different kind of empathy. I’m selfish. I seek out other people’s stories, pain, and emotions to fill the gaping hole of dissatisfaction in my heart. I’m selfish- interested in filling my own void, not getting rid of theirs. It’s a different kind of empathy.
“I miss him.” she told me. She told me everything. The way she felt, the way he felt. And I listened- I understood- I empathized.
“You’ll be okay.” I told her. I told her what she needed to hear. How it was all temporary, how she deserved more. I understood and she felt less lonely. I empathized.
It’s a different kind of empathy. Filled with nothing but self-interest.
Day after day, they come to me. They come to me with their hearts in their hands. Tears streaming down their face. Their hearts broken, their self-esteem shattered- they come to me. Seeking redemption- seeking comfort. They seek to be understood and I seek to understand. They want nothing but to fill the gaping hole of loneliness in their chest and I…. well I want nothing but to fill it for them. It’s a different kind of empathy. Driven by self-interest. By the desire of satisfaction.
“You’re amazing.” She told me. She told me how happy I made her- how I defeated her loneliness- how I save her.
“It’s my pleasure.” I told her. And I really meant it.
I really meant it- it was my pleasure. Listening to her talk, helping her through it. It was my pleasure for this is all I desire. I desire nothing more but the satisfaction of seeing everyone happy. Their happiness motivates me to continue to understand the lives of those around me. I want nothing more but the connection between me and them.
It’s a different kind of empathy because for me, empathy isn’t pushing myself aside in order to understand someone, it’s fulfilling my self-interest through the understanding I find in others. It’s a different kind of empathy. One in which both parties are left satisfied.
Growing up, I was always considered the shy kid. The one kid who couldn’t bring herself to speak up for what she wanted. The kid who couldn’t care less about her self-interest. If only they knew how wrong they were in their assumptions. The very building block of human nature is self-interest and I too am human. My pursuit of self-interest was by no means conventional. While everyone was out in the world fighting for attention, I remained seated- waiting for someone to come to me; and like a moth to a brightly lit flame, they always did. They always came to seek refuge under my empathy and to pour out their deepest, darkest desires in order to be understood. I didn’t set aside my self-interest like they thought- every pained word they spoke, every tear that fell from their eyes was like a sirens call- drawing me in- hypnotizing me. I was trapped, like a bug in a spider web spun by their tears. Yes, I was empathetic but, true to human nature, I kept my self-interest in mind.
My self-interest never revolved around people returning the understanding I once gave them. Similar to all humans, I understood that self-interest wasn’t something to be ignored; however, unlike everyone else, I found my satisfaction from empathizing with others. To hear their stories of love, loss, and pain would ignite a desire within me to hold and comfort anyone facing a time of distress. I enjoyed taking time out of my life to listen to these people and allow their stories to help me feel compassion towards them. To me, empathy isn’t suppressing my needs for others but rather fulfilling my self-interest through others. It’s a different kind of empathy but I prefer it.