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, "serves...to 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?