the limits of empathy, part 2

When I was a kid, I used to fantasize about a magic potion that would change me into a different person. Not because I was trying to escape my own life, but so I could truly know what it was like to be someone else, from inside their skin. The potion would turn me into that other person for a set amount of time, then wear off and I'd be me again, but I'd remember everything I experienced and felt.

I didn't dream of being specific people, just people essentially different from me, or with extremely different lives. A man. A black person. A coal miner. A rock star. Often these mental exercises revolved around someone who had suffered great hardship. A slave. An abducted child.

I still do this to some extent - and you probably do, too - just without the hocus pocus. We imagine what it's like to be an Iraqi. Or a stranded tsunami survivor.

While walking my dogs this morning, watching them sniff a bit of brick wall as if it contained the Secret Of Life, I remembered this childhood fantasy. I'd love to be a dog for a day. Experience the world through canine eyes, ears and nose. Feel the world with a canine heart. What does it feel like to be Buster? What trauma is imprinted in his memory that makes him so anxious and fearful of the world? What does it feel like to love someone the way Buster loves me? (My standard joke is that if any man loved me the way Buster does, I'd have to get a restraining order.)

Trying to empathize with animals can be a heartbreaking exercise, as so many of them are caged, hunted, experimented on or otherwise abused.

Empathy is painful, but human society can't exist without it. In some sense, people like me want empathy to be a more powerful force than nationalism or other archaic forms of tribalism. Recognizing our common humanity has become a cliche, but it's really all we have.


Kyle_From_Ottawa said...

Well, sometimes I'd like to be either my cat or one of my guinea pigs. They have such easy, comfortable lives.

Of course, being an animal in a unloving home would be a different experience entirely. That would be horrifying.

laura k said...

Yes, just like babies. A great life if you're in a good home. Otherwise, hell - and you're trapped in it.

I know what you mean about the easy life of your pets. It does look cushy, doesn't it?

I've heard guinea pigs make nice pets.

Kyle_From_Ottawa said...

My girlfriend always had hamsters, and she's less than enamoured to my cat.

Mixing hamsters and a cat is obviously not a good idea (especially since hamsters escape from their cages on a regular basis). So we compromised on getting a guinea pig. We thought it would be like having a giant hamster, but they're quite a bit more. They pay more attention to you for one thing, and they'll sit on your lap while you pet them. After we got the first one, we ended getting a second one to keep the first one company. We're quite happy with them.

Kyle_From_Ottawa said...

Oh, I guess I can call her my fiancée now....that'll take getting used to.

laura k said...

Well don't get too used to it - you'll be calling her your wife for a very long time. Congratulations!

laura k said...

Coincidentally, the person who told me that guinea pigs make good pets is Canadian. She lives in Waterloo.