The Limits of Empathy: A Riddle
A few weeks ago, a lump of flesh moved into my living room. I don’t know where it came from, or where it is going, but I have heard that it will soon leave. I cannot tell you very much about this creature; whether it is human or some other variety of living thing. But I suspect it is alive because, though it doesn’t seem to have language, or even eyes, or ears, it does breathe and jiggle. I know that because every time I approach, it shudders and gives a little shake as its skin flaps close down like Venetian blind slats on a sunny day. Without knowing where it comes from, I have the peculiar sense that the creature is repulsed by me. If I stay my distance, it goes on in its creaturely way, softly and regularly breathing, engaged with some kind of machine placed about a foot and a half in front of its hulk. But if I approach and enter the creature’s space, all functioning shuts down and it rapidly moves into some kind of urgent self-protective positioning. Breathing stops, and the gentle jiggling halts. I smell fear. I am not dumb and learn very quickly—within the first day or so of its visit—that it is best if I stay on my side of the room.
I have been forced into emergency-mode functioning myself. Believe me, it isn’t easy when some god-forsaken blob takes over your living quarters. Polite by training, if not by nature, I try to be a good and pleasant host. Offering the creature food and drink from time to time, inquiring in a breezy tone about the weather, I try to keep my voice calm and to appear as if my emotions are under control. Using my mirror neurons, as I have been taught, to try to make sense of whom and what this creature is, seems to get me nowhere. My highly developed empathy, which I use to try to psychically enter this creature’s inner space, gets thrown right back in my face.
Although not immediately apparent, I come to believe that this creature has some amazing capacities that I do not possess. It seems to be able to create an impenetrable barrier around its circumference. Hard to believe, I know, but I can speak from only a few feet away, and it seems not to hear. The creature is equally talented at blocking out vision. I could be crying and stomping my feet right in front of what I think is its face, but it seems not to see. Emotions, too, by our human standards, are very different. Even the sight of blood, dripping onto the floor, after I have slit my wrists, probably would not elicit much of a response.
Believe it or not, I have grown to be fond of this hulk of flesh. Despite its general lack of activity and ambition, it keeps itself clean and exudes a faint odor of soap and hair product. It comforts me to return home, after a long day fighting the elements and find that things are unchanged in my living quarters. All is exactly as it was when I left: dishes caked and crusted in the sink, newspapers piled on the kitchen table, and clothing artfully strewn across the furniture. This species, I believe, is highly conservative by nature; it never alters or changes the placement of any item.
Call me crazy or call me Betty Crocker, but the truth is, I worry that I have failed to create a good enough home for this creature. Have I made it happy? Does it feel safe? Have I made it secure, and confident in its creatureliness? Will it return? Will it think longingly of our comfortable, conservative home in the interim? I fear not. But perhaps I am mistaken. Knowingly or unknowingly, the creature has changed us here in our living quarters and will leave a residue behind in our thoughts, if not on the furniture. We shall forever be changed for having known our hulk.