TOO MUCH EMPATHY?

Back in October when I went to see “Captain Phillips,” I wrote about the reaction I had of being (somewhat) traumatized by the events in the movie, even though I was never kidnapped.  What I am discovering now is certain books and movies are incredibly upsetting in ways I have never experienced before.  While I was in Atlanta for Christmas, I went to see “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.”  I, of course, knew about apartheid while I was growing up, and you’d think I’d remember how bad it really was in South Africa during that time.  I guess, though, that being so far away and so removed from it, it simply did not have any effect on my life.  When I lived in Europe in the late ’80s, a time when Americans were still not allowed to go to South Africa, there was an agency in Cape Town that wanted me to come to work.  Since I was in Spain, I could get around the fact that I was technically not permitted to go there.  In the end, though, when they found out that I was 29, it was decided that I was ‘too old’ and they withdrew their offer for me to go.  Anyway, I was plenty old enough to know what was going on.  What I did not know was the extent of just how bad it truly was.

The movie made that very clear.  I left feeling extremely sad, but not necessarily for the reasons one might expect.  Of course, what they, both the blacks and the whites, endured over the many years that apartheid was the law of the land was beyond horrendous.  In the past I would have felt sympathetic, and that would have been the end of it.  I would have felt bad, but, really what did it have to do with me?  Now, however, what happens, what I feel, on top of the sympathy and empathy is a sense of knowing exactly what the people who lived through that kind of trauma are going to go through emotionally, for possibly the rest of their lives.  And I also know that most, if not all, will not get the kind of therapy that is needed to heal from such trauma.  That breaks my heart.  Even writing about it is hard for me.  I have no way of knowing if this is something that will stay with me for the rest of my life or if it will fade over time.  I am hopeful it fades in time because it is a hard way to live.

The acute feelings that seeing (even in a movie) or reading about traumatic, tragic events brings up in me makes me think that my brain still has some healing to go through.  I do think it is mostly healed because I am able to focus and work, things I was unable to do while I was in the process of getting through it.  I am able to do most everything I did pre-attack.  And while there are worse things than being highly empathic, I always feel like I am on the verge of tears.  After the movie, on the way home, I tried to explain to my parents how I was feeling, without sobbing.  I guess what I am trying to say here is the kind of knowledge I now possess because of being sexually assaulted isn’t necessarily a good thing.  As hard as I work at being happy and putting it all behind me, I think there is an underlying sadness that hasn’t yet gone away.  These days it does not take much to push me over the edge.  So, I will continue to avoid certain books, or at least skip the parts I cannot bear to read, and I will not see some of the movies I might otherwise enjoy.

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