There’s a fine line between excessively sympathetic and emotionally unstable. A fine, fine line. [Cue song]
*I sang this little ditty at my first showcase in NYC (2011). This video of me is for entertainment purposes only and really has nothing to do with the rest of this post.
Let me tell you a story. Last week, a young lady strolled into Safeway grocery store to buy quinoa (keen-wah), chicken, mushrooms, and asparagus for dinner. She may or may not have been trying to be healthy in order to lose the 3lbs she’d gained in a single weekend from binging on potato chips and Velveeta Shells & Cheese, but who knows. After rounding up the goods, she approached the nearest checkout aisle, which occupied a teenage boy cashier of Asian heritage. His skin was a pale grayish color, his lips were swollen, his hands were red and cracking, and his ears had painful-looking scabs from whatever skin condition plagued him. Briefly forgetting her hanger (<– click for definition), the young woman tried to brighten his day with a friendly “hello” as she placed her food on the checkout belt. The boy was obviously nervous as he shakily scanned the first two items and avoided eye contact. When he picked up the asparagus, he started flipping through a book of vegetables to find their identification code, but after a minute, shyly asked his secretly-hangry customer what they were called. Feeling patient in light of his obvious nerves, she gently answered, “Asparagus.” After another minute or two of frantic button-pushing, he mumbled that it was his first day and he couldn’t figure out how to ring up the…long green things. Three full minutes later, he breathlessly called into the empty air “Darryl!”-which we can assume was the name of the one manager’s name he remembered. Unfortunately, Darryl didn’t appear in a magical poof of smoke, so the boy returned to desperately stabbing buttons on the register.
At this point, the girl’s hanger started to vaguely bubble from within. She needed food and needed it now. Quietly, so not to embarrass him in front of the long line that had formed in the last five minutes, she said, “I’m not trying to steal or anything, but they’re like, $2. Do you think you can either find a manager or just throw them in the bag? Either way would probably better than not figuring it out.” Unfortunately, an even hangrier lady was next in line and overheard, jumping on the opportunity to screech, “She’s right!! This isn’t how you run a business! Give her the dang asparagus for free and let the rest of us start checking out!” The poor child behind the counter was clearly about to have a heart attack, so the girl with the asparagus began proactively scanning the premises for a medic and/or manager. Just in the nick of time- saving the day in khakis and a faded blue polo- Darryl triumphantly rounded the corner to swiftly ring up the asparagus, double-bag the wine, and re-bag the raw chicken in its own Salmonella-free compartment. When all was settled, the cashier-boy handed the girl her receipt and issued the most heartbreaking apology in the history of apologies. She smiled and said, “Don’t worry about it,” then proceeded to her car, where she got inside and replayed his agonizing apology over and over in her head. This kid obviously had a tough life with his physical deformity, plus a terrible and intimidating first day at work…so she did what anyone who feels bad for someone would do. She cried the whole way home.
Who does that? Silly girl. Such an emotional mess. She should get it together. Can you imagine getting that upset because of a teenage boy’s battle with asparagus? Embarrassing!!
Okay, fine. It was me.
Maybe I’m more like a baby than I realized and simply can’t help but cry when hungry, but I’m fairly certain that feeling bad for a cashier shouldn’t prompt a wave of unbridled emotion. Once the tears subsided and I subsequently judged myself for a full hour (and ate, duh), I tried to see the positive: Maybe I’m not an emotional disaster who should be locked away from the world like a ball of nuclear energy on the brink of eruption. Maybe I just have shockingly high levels of sympathy/empathy. [My coworker told me her roommate once partook in a university study to scientifically determine levels of emotion, and her roommate’s results said- verbatim: Shockingly low levels of empathy. Add that to the Match profile.]
That kind of long quick story and psychological analysis leads me to one question: Is caring for others too much a legitimate problem?
When the typical pageant interview question What’s your biggest weakness? elicits the response I have too big of a heart, we all snort at the subtle nod to narcissism. Oh, you’re so great that your greatest weakness is being too great? Must be tough being you.
But what if that’s a real answer? What if it’s true that having too big of a heart is a serious weakness in life?
[For the record, my answer to that question was always “Cheese.” Make ‘em laugh and move on. I don’t need to advertise that my weaknesses include resting b**** face, an inability to keep my car clean, and a fear of instruction manuals.]
I think everybody can agree that a certain amount of sympathy/empathy is important. It’s even an implication of the Golden Rule. Think about how other people feel and treat them accordingly. Got it. But some of us find it difficult to turn off the compassion switch once someone’s suffering is completely out of our control. Our hearts break for people who were dealt terrible cards, who are hurt by people we can’t stop, or even for those who continually hurt themselves. Since there’s nothing we can do, our concerned little hearts throw their hands up in despair, asking God “Whyyyy” and wreaking havoc on the nearest tear ducts. I think it’s safe to call that reaction a weakness in life.
Like any weakness, excessive sympathy/empathy can be strengthened and improved upon. This doesn’t mean those of us with this condition should strive to be ice queens, but it does mean that we should trust in the greater plan when the suffering of others is beyond our reach. Instead of letting those moments overwhelm us with sadness, we should harness that emotion into either developing a legitimate plan or practicing trust in a power greater than our own.
And that’s what I have to say about that.
Quite a simple conclusion for such a
long riveting introductory story, but I never know where these things are going until they’re finished. This one just happened to be top heavy.
By the way- for those of you with “shockingly low levels of empathy,” getting teary-eyed from helplessly watching old men shuffle across the street in the rain or welling up with happiness for people crossing the finish line at marathons doesn’t make us unstable. We just really, really like our fellow humans. And if we lose control of our emotions, give us a glass of wine and throw on The Mindy Project. We’ll be good to go in no time. Actually, scratch the wine…that may add to the emotions. Wait. No. Never scratch the wine.