On hyper-empathy in the age of cities, strangers, mass and social media

Despite my attempts at basic witchcraft training in that regard, when attempting to leave my hermit’s cocoon and participate further in (some semblance of a) social life, I see the same old problem up-surging, the same ones that brought me into hermitage in the first place.

There are people who are unbelievably wounded and whose emotional radiation seems essentially to be screaming “I’m fighting for my life, community, save me now or I’ll die”. Unfortunately, I tend to hear these cries. It’s not a matter of hearing; it’s a matter of a person walking through a building and painting all walls glaringly red with their pain and need for a deep, healing interior rearrangement.

The various trainings I’ve taken regarding how to not go crazy just from seeing this – something that with my sensitivity seems fairly impossible to un-see – and how not to burn out while trying to help other people in their unsolvable, cycling issues – come down, I’d say, to versions of this proposition: none of this is your business, so mind your own business. “Set boundaries”, separate yourself from others and don’t try to “help” in that type of emergency unless you’re asked for it (or even compensated / remunerated).

There are two problems with this:

1) in my visceral perception of other people’s states, I’m definitely being directly asked to help. Asking me to ignore this is equivalent, pretty literally, to ignore the cries of someone drowning. Yes, they’re maybe not directly addressing me – by name – for help, and they won’t pay me for it, but they are crying out to the human community in general, and as a member of it (though I have certainly often doubted whether I am that), well, this request is for me. There is no way you are explaining this away.

2) I tend to distrust that kind of schooling as it often comes from cultures that tend very intensely towards the “extreme individualism” (pathological individualism? as I think Barbara Sher called it) end of the spectrum. While the advice often comes from people who seem wise, I distrust the cultural background because I do not see the social model promoted by such cultures (predatory capitalism, as some call it, with little regard for the collective good) as trustworthy or something worth aspiring to.

It’s hard for me to tease these two things apart.

I’ve come to see the problem with merging and living through the emotional problems of, trying to “save” everyone whose cries for help are in my radius (and thanks to media, this radius is greater than ever – in the past I would have just heard what comes from one tribe or village, which certainly seems more manageable than having unlimited access – and often unwanted exposure – to global disaster at any time of day and night).

The problem with that is, you can’t live. You’re busy living through other’s dramas, recovering from that, accumulating problems in your own life because you don’t feel there’s space to tend to it (or even know how – an alien concept), finally burn out overwhelmed by both. We can’t live that way even if it were morally the right thing to do – it’s just physically, physiologically impossible; it’s limited by our material nature.

That simply is. I occasionally come across highly compassionate souls who wish it wasn’t or try to deny it beyond any glaringly impossible level of breaking points.

I’ve accepted that if I’m to stay alive (a logical precondition to contributing anything at all) then this habit has to go.

Initially the only way to not feel other people’s (including completely random strangers’) feelings constantly and then have to digest them painfully was to stay away from people. That even includes online communication (since I’ve started being on social media because of my community work, I’ve seen this disruptive impact of it again).

Frankly, that is still the main strategy.

The second strategy then was to learn the concept that people’s individual pains are the path to their individual personal / spiritual / whatever-you-want-to-call-it growth, if they learn to digest them into that. That is certainly a process I have ample experience with on my own path, and it is true – what has been useful was guidance on how to do that. I could write “… and not someone trying to heal me or take the pain away from me”, but I think that is not entirely true: there were certainly many moments when a healing and grounding presence, attention, a safe circle, compassion would have been highly appreciated and reduced sources of further suffering.

Frankly, yes, often I would have totally wanted to receive the kind of thing I can sometimes offer. I occasionally did, too, which is why I generally have faith.

This boundary-honoring approach is helpful, works quite well in cases where there is emotional pain and the person is perhaps not on top of it but yes, they are clearly on their own inscrutable path of life and evolution, and they are probably strong.

Offering a grounded and open presence then is helpful, and kind of enough.

Is that enough in all cases?

When I have the impression that someone is on the brink of the brink, is that always or usually a misjudgment? I don’t think so.

But yes, there are often many hidden dimensions, and that includes hidden resources. While what my intuition perceives so poignantly and painfully is just the surface level of an intense cry for help that runs chaotically in all directions, there are hidden sources and structures. There is a whole house, a whole construction, that this stands on. It’s not on me to tear that down and exchange it – that again would be dishonoring autonomy.

Yet what my inner self can’t stop perceiving is some sort of call to healing ritual, for lack of a better word – for a circle, for a safe space.

I keep wondering in how far this issue that I’m struggling with has to do with changed (or lack of) community structures – if I regard this sixth sense for suffering as largely instinctual and somehow primal (presumably the way a couple of people per village had it and used it in ancient times), then maybe one of the issues is that it’s calibrated to work within a tribe or village – not in a global pseudo-community of strangers and often alienated acquaintances.

It’s designed to work in a social context where it would actually be relevant: if someone in a tribe or village of a few dozen people sends out a desperate emotional cry for help, I would say yes, this is definitely something that everyone should care about and figure out how to do something about –otherwise it’s going to adversely affect everyone. Since it’s people who know each other and hopefully respect each other and have communal rituals of solving problems, there is a far greater chance to be able to do something useful, and even if not, there is at least the possibility to hold a communal supportive space. [a vague and fictitious fantasy]

Whereas yes, in a world of strangers, being sensitive to cries of pain and trouble is very troublesome, because it is true that often there is nothing intelligent to do (at the very least because we are strangers, afraid of each other, and directly responding to emotional signals is usually perceived as invasive) – and when there is, the work is endless because there is never a shortage of strangers in pain.

Compulsively responding doesn’t work, but tuning out or treating it as “not your business cause nobody asked for your help” is also wrong, or at least distasteful to me. Apart from the fact that it seems undoable.

Given the “village” model fantasized above, maybe an intermediate strategy could be to accept, specifically, that the acute empathy instinct is designed to function in human-scale communities of non-strangers: there is nothing “wrong” with it (for not being adapted to cold, alienated capitalist mass societies; what an outrageous idea in the first place) except that applying it instinctually in settings that aren’t human-scale nor community-based in the full sense of the word is like applying an ancient hand tool on a large-scale construction site. You’ll probably just break the tool. Go and use it in your corner handicraft workshop instead.

In other words, understand the limits of responsibility: perhaps they are more or less as big as a small tribe. There isn’t more you can do, even though yes, unfortunately you can always see and feel it. But there must be others who take care of it, too; those into whose village it falls. On the upside, in the alienated and mobility-encouraging capitalist mass society if you’re in a good position, you can to some degree choose the tribe that seems most compatible with what you have to offer.

To some degree, because achieving any kind of community integration from scratch, if you haven’t grown up and into it, still seems like an uphill swim with no end. Yet I believe perhaps that’s what’s needed to some degree ground the runaway “healer” instinct, by designating it a proper territory in which it is usually appropriate and helpful to use, according to community structures and rituals; and where only a limited load (even in terms of the sheer number of people) is put on it.

* * *

Coming back to the painful instance of watching, seeing and not being able to channel that seeing and witnessing into anything (because there is no relationship, no shared languages, because it’s a random near-stranger) – maybe it is also appropriate to develop a minimally-invasive and minimally energy-intensive symbolic ritual; of greeting, witnessing, acknowledging that “I see your suffering clearly; you are for now not in my village so I respect this division and I just continue existing here, taking care of that which is assigned to me”.

The latter is a field whose size is clearly delimited by what is inherently human-scale to me, because this is how it was intended. To expand, this must be a collective endeavor with each person conscientiously covering their patch (and not more, so that we can continue without fatigue for a long time).

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