The British novelist Virginia Woolf said that we're islands--we can hardly understand each other.  In her essay "On Being Ill," Woolf makes this point by asking us to remember what it's like to have the flu.   


If you have a temperature of 104, she says, it's impossible to convey all the peaks and valleys of that pain to whoever's taking care of you.  You'll experience a lot of it alone.  Wanting to have another person understand, you can resort to numbers--telling someone that your pain rates as a "5," say, on a scale of "1 to 10."  That conveys some objective measurement of experience. 


But a number doesn't explain the details.  Words come a bit closer, but they also fail to convey all the nuance of a felt experience.  I can describe a headache as either "throbbing" or "piercing."  But I can't share an actual physical experience with someone else. 


We are like turtles in some sense, carrying internal experience deep inside our selves: "Human beings do not go hand in hand the whole stretch of the way," Woolf writes in the essay.  "There is a virgin forest in each; a snowfield where even the print of birds' feet is unknown.  Here we go alone, and like it better so.  Always to have sympathy, always to be accompanied, always to be understood would be intolerable." 


"Intolerable," she says.  Two bodies inside one turtle shell would make that shell unbearable.  Although we want to be understood, our isolation is also a sort of gift.  I can, after all, be proud in solitude.  If I'm alone, I am free and imagine things you never dream of.  Being alone in the world ensures some originality. 


Egoism as opposed to a desire for connection are always at a tug-of-war in Woolf.  She goes on to argue that ego can even play a reparative role--or fuel that small bit of mutual understanding which we can accomplish.  After all, the only way we get inside each other's lives, she says, is to project our own experience onto others.  Empathy begins with your memory of what you yourself have gone through.


For example, if my friend's sick, and I go over to help, I can't really understand his full physical experience.  My best bet is to file through my own past experiences and project them onto my friend.  My friend's description of a headache, Woolf writes, " wake memories in his friends' minds of their influenza, their aches and pains which went unwept last February."  We relate to someone else's experience by scooting back through our own.  I don't fully know what a friend feels.  But I know what I've felt.  I've also known my own isolation.  So like a hero, I project my own pain onto this friend here, and my own past pains fuel me to get involved in his situation.  Empathy involves that projection of personal experience.


I wonder what you make of that last piece: that we only understand someone else by projecting our own lives onto theirs.  Do you think that's true?  To what extent do we need to have had some experience, ourselves, to understand it in another?
Message Edited by IlanaSimons on 04-30-2009 09:06 AM
by Sunltcloud on ‎05-01-2009 12:41 PM

I find myself strangely separated from my own physical suffering when it is not in progress, and even at the time I experience pain, I have no concrete observational powers, the way I normally do, standing outside myself, shaking my head or nodding when things happen. I feel pain, period. I beg to be released from it.


Once I tried to keep a journal of pain, and ended up angry with myself for not being able to describe the details. It was during a time I had severe pain in one leg, couldn’t walk, sat in bed at night and cried, took around the clock medications.


This was also the only illness that had me call friends and tell them that I suffered. It was the only illness that didn’t make me hide in solitude. And though I usually don’t want people around when I am sick, (especially when my nose is running, every waste basket is filled with tissues, and I haven’t had a shower in three days) that time I didn’t care that I was needy or whiny or dependent. Somebody fluffing my pillow made me feel just a bit better; a visitor with a bag of fruit or a magazine made me cry. As for hope, I had one enduring thought that “one day the sun will shine again,” an idea that I now tell friends when they are in need.


Oddly enough, shortly after the sun comes out I forget the feeling of that particular pain. And that is the reason I can’t project my experience with physical pain onto somebody else. I stand without memory when it comes to comforting somebody else. Maybe that’s why I am sometimes awkward in doing so. Sure, there is a clumsy, almost hollow recognition of circumstance. “You are sick; I was once sick; I know all about sickness and suffering.” But not until I leave the comparisons behind and just listen to the person, do I start to feel empathy and only then the right words or action will come.


I must add that for me there is a big difference between physical and emotional pain. I don’t forget emotional pain. Air raid sirens make me shiver. Seeing a child abused causes a knot in my stomach. Other situations trigger profound sadness. Whether emotional pain is expressed by a friend, comes from a TV show or reaches me in an email, I feel it; I understand it; I am able to empathize. And I hope that I am able to help.  



by on ‎05-01-2009 02:06 PM

I wonder what you make of that last piece: that we only understand someone else by projecting our own lives onto theirs.  Do you think that's true?  To what extent do we need to have had some experience, ourselves, to understand it in another?


Yes, it is true, within degrees of understanding.  If you've never experience either physical or emotional pain, you won't/can't  honestly identify it.  If you've never experienced, say child birth, do you really know what it feels like?  If you've never felt like taking your life, do you understand what that mind experiences?


You can read about it, and intellectualize it all that you want to, but you won't honestly feel it.  I can tell you I reached a 9, in that last blog about suicide.  If I had reached a 10, I would not be here to write this.  How many varying degrees do any of us feel, before we can use that experience to give empathy?  I suppose, you can alway fake empathy, or compassion, if you're a good enough actor.


Again, you don't have to be there to understand, but you do have to be there, if you truly want to feel something besides what some one else has told you should feel.

by Blogger IlanaSimons on ‎05-01-2009 02:57 PM

To Sultcloud,

I relate to the distinction you make physical pain, which is hard to remember, and emotional pain, which is easier to remember or translate for others.  Woolf would say that that's because we have a well-formed, historically-rooted public vocabulary for narratives about emotional pain, but we have traditionally blocked the body out of our big novels, t.v. shows, etc...   Woolf wanted to see us form a vocabulary to map the body--anything from a headache to cancer.  "The merest schoolgirl," Woolf writes,"when she falls in love, has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her; but let a sufferer try to describe the pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry." 

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