A Case of the Lonelies: A Misguided Journey to (Maybe) a Better Understanding of Perspective and Empathy

Loneliness kinda sucks, you know?

Everyone does know, I suppose, but I'm realizing that it's really hard for anyone to really empathize with loneliness unless they are also presently feeling lonely.

Turns out my strangely sudden melancholic loneliness has turned me into a philosopher (is philosopher the right word?) and I'm taking you along on a hike through my brain. Try not to get distracted; it's really not safe to wander in here.

First, we need to talk about perspective.

As is often the case with negative things, once you're no longer surrounded by the darkness, it's instinctive to look back and see that what was once overwhelming looks really quite insignificant from the outside.

They call that perspective.

The thing about perspective is that sometimes it lies.

We want to trust our perspective, but we really shouldn't. Have you ever seen an optical illusion? How about a mirage?

Perspective lies to us on both sides of the good-bad cookie; misleading you while you're surrounded by trouble as well as when you are outside looking in.

Perspective isn't a bad guy, though. He's faithful to telling the truth as he sees it. It's not his fault that he doesn't understand his own bias.

But we do. And just like we would if a little kid confidently told us that Santa exists, we shouldn't just blindly accept what perspective says. That's nice, kid, but I know better.

Now that we're on the same page on perspective let's get back to talking about loneliness, shall we.

I really do believe that loneliness is a universal virus. Everyone has had it at some point. Which would mean, one would think, that everyone should be able to empathize with a lonely person; we've all been there, right?

No.

Because perspective is (a liar) unable to see loneliness properly from the outside.

In seeking comfort from people I ran into a couple of well-meaning attempts to help give me a better perspective. I've done it a million times (who hasn't?), and I know they meant well, I'm only pointing it out because it helped me realize something important.

Empathy, by nature, should not be given by someone who isn't currently in the dark with you, or able to go back into the dark in their minds. Attempts at empathy from the "outside" perspective can make things worse... let me try to explain...

Empathy is like a flashlight.

Have you ever tried to navigate through the dark without a light?

Camping used to be a good example of this, but now everyone camps in trailers and no one understands the treacherousness of that walk from the tent to the outhouse in the dead of night with a flashlight that can't illuminate for beans.

My youth group (if anyone from there is reading this) would probably think of a game called Gorgon.  Walking familiar rooms in complete darkness really messes with perspective's view of reality.

Work with me here... Imagine you're surrounded by complete darkness. You know you want to get out, but you don't know which way. So you focus; try to force your eyes to adjust so you can see something, anything to give you a clue. You feel a little helpless. Maybe a lot helpless. You call out for help.

Two scenarios of what happen next:

One. A well-meaning person on the "outside" hears you and wants to help you. They turn on their empathy flashlight and shine it in at you. Here's the problem: their perspective is lying to them about how dark it is "inside". Their light is too bright. You are blinded and you feel like this person doesn't understand anything about what you're going through! It hurts. You can use it -- walking towards it slowly, trying not to open your eyes too much -- but it's uncomfortable.

Two. Somebody in the dark with you (or someone brave enough to walk back in) hears you and wants to help you. They find you in the dark. They turn on their empathy flashlight. (There's a problem here too, sorry to say, because darkness is tricky.) Their perspective (your perspective) is lying to you both about how dark it is "inside". You think the dark is all consuming, and undefeatable. The flashlight is only turned on halfway and pointed at the ground. But that's enough to shift your helpless perspective! You turn on your empathy flashlight too -- slowly so it doesn't hurt your eyes. You and your new friend slowly reimagine the darkness and let your lights shine brighter and farther until you can navigate the way out together.

Both helpful people, but one may prolong hurt, the other may hasten understanding.

I don't know... maybe I'll wake up tomorrow and think this is all nonsense and I should not blog while recently emotional, but right now I'm feeling downright inspired!

Empathy depends on putting aside your perspective and adopting theirs, no matter how wrong it is, until their perspective can understand the truth more clearly than the lies.

Goodnight, Lovelies.

                                   

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