Friday, September 5, 2008

The Trouble with Empathy

So for the last 10 years or so, I've been noticing that my creative writing has been building my empathy muscles. Thinking from my characters' perspectives requires me to try to understand people I often don't like. For the most part, this is a good thing.

The problem is that now that I'm in the habit, I can't stop, even when I'm supposed to be maintaining some sort of professional distance from the subject matter. (No wonder I find quantitative social science difficult.)

The thing is, now I've been sensitized, I find it more and more difficult to remain untouched when I encounter difficult or dark subject matter. The problem this week is that my rhetoric of conspiracy class, despite its seemingly amusing quality (and yes, it DOES make me want to watch "So I Married an Axe Murderer" again, especially the part about the triumvirate), also has much dark subject matter. It highlights the ugly outgrowths of fear and suspicion, including much prejudice. And it doesn't help me that many of the researchers writing about often seem to thinly veil their disgust for the type of people who would feel such emotions (disgust I so easily empathize with).

Vinita Hampton Wright warned me this side effect of the creative life in The Soul Tells a Story, so I shouldn't be surprised. Still, working through my emotional responses to all of this involves a lot of emotional processing, which takes time. Sheesh, it's annoying to have to expend this sort of time during the school year dealing with this sort of thing--I expect it when I'm doing creative writing, but am always shocked, for some unaccountable reason (probably having to do with the expected academic distance), to encounter it in my academic work. The worst part is, I think, that it gives me a preview of the sort of thing I'm going to have to deal with if and when I start writing the type of novel (and I have a few in mind) that have actual villains. It's going to take courage to go there.

Some days it would be so easy to think that all of this were the result of some sort of conspiracy against me. I'm sure God's in on it, somehow--he usually has it in for any self-righteousness, anger, bitterness, etc. I try to hold on to. Hm, the Trinity--sounds triumvirate-like...maybe that empathy for the conspiracy rhetoricians won't be so hard to find after all. After all, my engagements with my faith make me realize I have all sorts of fears. It could be so easy to move into that sort of outlet for them.

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