I Am An Empath

I feel things.

I feel them deeply, sometimes to my discomfort. This is why I can be seen crying when I watch movies, or when I read books. Even when I read my books sometimes. (More about that later). I, being an alpha male, usually crack-wise about allergies or dust motes or being shot in the eye with a hunting arrow as reasons why I begin leaking during certain movies and TV shows, but the truth is I am a big, soft-shelled cream puff.

But here’s the thing. For whatever reason, God instilled in me a level of empathy which has allowed me, over the years, to be in tune with the needs of other people, with their joy and, far too often their pain. “In tune,” is a very imperfect, shallow phrase for what goes on inside of me actually. When I see someone suffering, I immediately begin to suffer too. I feel what they are feeling.

I am an Empath. This is a word that doesn’t show up in too many dictionaries. It certainly isn’t in my Merriam Webster’s Collegiate, although two definitions up from where it should be is the word “empanada,” which is yummy. But I digress. When I use that word I refer to a person who is not just sensitive to the feelings, needs, emotions, pains, etc. of other people, but actually takes them within, internalizes them, and while they may not actually make them their own, they feel them as though they were.

Eventually, I will write something about such a person. It won’t be hard. I’ll have only to look in the mirror to find my protagonist fully fleshed-out.

Sometimes the tears come from the joy of those I’m encountering. This is where an example from my own writing is relevant. I never get through Chapter 12 of A Dark Clock without crying. When I was writing it, and reading new chapters to Kimmy in the evenings, by the end of Chapter 12 we both looked like hungry babies with full diapers. We wuz cryin’!

While there is a lot of good to this condition, there are times when it is excruciatingly painful for me. For example, movies. When I watch a movie and see a parent agonize over their child, I immediately begin to feel that agony, because if what they are going through were to happen to either of my kids, it would tear me to shreds. The same thing happens when lovers are destroyed in some way or another. When I was younger, unrequited love stung like a nest of hornets. Now that I’m older nothing cripples me more than the sight of an old man kissing his dying wife. I’m actually tearing up a little even writing that.

But perhaps the thing that can cripple me faster than anything else is music. There are certain songs that I have to listen to sparingly. One such is “Beloved Wife” by Natalie Merchant. Good Lord! If you can listen to that song and not at least mist up a little, you are a monster and I want nothing to do with you.

There is another song, however, that is the actual reason I wrote this entire post. It’s a song by 3 Doors Down, described by Wikipedia as “an American rock band from Escatwapa, Mississippi,” in case you were wondering. The song appears on the album The Better Life. An excerpt from it appears as an epigraph to my story “Welcome Home.” The name of the song is “Loser.”

It was almost the name of the story as well, which would have probably meant the entire book in which it is featured would have had another name as well. The section that forms the epigraph reads as follows:

You’re getting closer
To pushing me off of life’s little ledge
‘Cause I’m a loser
And sooner or later you know I’ll be dead

The reason I put this at the beginning of the most autobiographical thing I’ve ever written is that during the time period in which “Welcome Home” takes place, this song, had it been written then, would have been my theme song. I might have resolved to have it tattooed onto my body, although I’d probably have chickened out at the last minute.

If you’ve read the story, you’ll know that Sid, who is me, was going through as miserable a stretch of living as any person ever has. Way too much of it is absolute non-fiction. There is one passage, almost a throwaway in the grand scheme of the work, that explains everything there is to know about Scott Varengo, circa 1985. I quote:

There was a waiter named Dylan who was a few years younger than Sid. He had a mythological persona about him, as he’d left Potsdam a couple years ago, and had lived in Colorado for a short time. He came back with stories of epic adventures and amazing accomplishments. For some reason, everyone was very impressed by this. Sid didn’t see anything that spectacular about any of it, but had kept his opinions to himself. It was Dylan who had, one night, while well into his cups himself, called Sid a loser. Until that moment, despite the downward turn his life had taken, Sid had never thought of himself as a loser. From that night forward, however, he was never able to think of himself as anything else.

Here are a few tidbits of trivia about that passage.

  1. It is absolutely true, word for word.
  2. I didn’t change the name of the person who spoke the curse.
  3. I didn’t recover from his having said this about me for nearly thirty years.

Now I need to stress something: I gave the power to this guy and his statement. From the moment the words hit the air, I could have rejected them. But instead, I owned them. I owned them for the majority of my life.

I no longer identify myself with that word, choosing to call myself “writer” instead. But when I hear that song, especially those words, I feel what that 25-year-old lost boy felt, and I have to remind myself, loudly, that Dylan was wrong. Is wrong.

Oh, and it looks like our time is up for this session. We did some very productive work. See the receptionist to get your card for next week.

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