Tag Archives: empathy

Physical empathy and channels of communication

Patty-cake

I was relaxing on a common-room couch, when one of my friends started talking about a clapping game that she’d learned back in her home country. I’ll call it patty-cake for reduced identifiability, and call her Pepper. Another friend (let’s call her Salt) ran over and said “teach me!”, so she taught her how to play it. I was in an introspective mood, so I wondered aloud - why did I feel sad about this?

It wasn’t that I especially wanted to learn patty-cake. It wasn’t even that I expected that Pepper would refuse to teach me if I asked. The problem was that even if I got Pepper to teach me the game, it wouldn’t be the same kind of interaction that she’d had with Salt. But what was that kind of interaction, and why did we all agree that it wouldn’t have been the same if I’d been the one to ask? Continue reading

Safety in numbers

Relaxation and waking up

Taking a bath taught me that I hate it when things relax me.

As part of my project to repair my relationship with desire, I’ve been working through the pleasure exercises in the book Pleasurable Weight Loss. These exercises frequently expose me to something that paradigmatically gives pleasure. The intended effect, I think, is to learn to embrace pleasure through habit-formation. The effect on me, however, has been to show me something surprising each time, often through my failure to be pleased by the activity, improving my self-model in a relevant way. I wrote about my experience with a nature walk. Another pleasure exercise was to take a luxurious bath.

When I finally emerged from a long, hot bath, I found my body unusually relaxed. I sat down on the couch and wanted to flop over. I didn’t feel like moving at all. And this was terrible. It felt as though a wizard had cast a spell on me to dullen my mind. I wasn’t thinking, I wasn’t moving, and I didn’t want to, and this was terrible. It was dangerous.

I went for a walk afterwards with a friend, and didn’t wear my jacket. The brisk winter Berkeley air cheered me up, since now I felt like moving, and thinking, and didn’t feel like I had to resist slipping into a restful oblivion.

I dislike warmth, and soft dim lighting, and deep soft couch cushions that threaten to envelop me, for much the same reason: it feels like a trap. It feels like something is trying to lull me into a false sense of security. It feels like one of those scenes in a fantasy story, where the hero’s exploring some underground catacombs, and enters a mysterious important-seeming room and all of a sudden is feeling nice and warm and sleepy, and wants to sit down for a bit, and meanwhile there are the skeletons of previous adventures littering the floor, and you want to shout, “wake up! Look around you! Get oriented or you die!”.  It feels like the warm, comforting, enveloping embrace of - death. Continue reading

On purpose alone

On being an agent

“Hey, do you mind if I steal one of those cookies?”
“I brought them to share.”

Denial of agency

I feel compelled to correct people when they jokingly ask permission to “steal” something. At first I assumed this was just due to some general pedantic impulse, but recently I’ve been noticing that this particular usage annoys me more than other casual semantic misusages. My current hypothesis is that this particular phrasing bothers me because it implicitly denies my agency.

Often I will have more of something on hand than I personally need, specifically because I anticipate that other people might need or want it too. I care about being the sort of person who thinks ahead like that, and I care about this thoughtfulness being understood and acknowledged. When a friend pretends that they’re stealing, they’re crafting a narrative where their good fortune happens by accident, that I just happened to have a thing they wanted, that they seized a random opportunity. It denies me the right to feel proud of having anticipated my friend’s probable needs, and to have the rightness of that pride acknowledged.

I felt a similar irritation in other circumstances where no one actively denied my agency, but people simply assumed that I wouldn’t have put work in: Continue reading

Nature and Nature's Bod: Attachment, Desire, Empathy Overload, and Embodiment

I’ve been working on increasing my sensitivity to my own desires and preferences. As part of this, I’ve been working through the exercises in a book my friend Sarah recommended, called Pleasurable Weight Loss

One recent exercise was to go somewhere with great natural beauty and connect with nature. I have never in my life felt connected with growing things - cities feel vibrant, alive, and purposeful to me, plants just feel like passive items of scenery - but I had decided to try every exercise in the book, no matter how hard it seemed, and make a genuine effort to engage with the spirit of the exercise. At worst, I’d get a better sense of what made the exercise hard. So I went out to Tilden Park and attempted to find a nature trail. I almost failed, but eventually found the botanical garden, where I wandered around, and noticed a few things. Continue reading

The predator in the herd

The first dream:

I am a spider. I want to make friends, but when people see me, they run away. They don’t understand my gestures. They don’t see a friendly face. They don’t think spiders can be friendly. So I build a silken puppet. I teach it to mimic the gestures the other people make. Eventually, the puppet is ready, and I lead it out into the world.

The puppet can pass for human. People try to make friends with the puppet. They care for it, and I make it do things for them, and express affection. But they don’t know there is a spider behind the puppet. Sometimes they notice that the puppet’s motions are a bit restricted, and they ask, “why won’t you let loose so I can see the real you?”

Eventually, I trust that they are sincere, and come out in front of the puppet. They see me, and run away.

The second dream:

I am a traveler in my own body. I feel a sense of nausea, which I do not understand. I can explore the parts of my head, but when I try to go down below the neck, I hit a barrier. The neck tightens. There is no way down.

I ask the parts of me below the neck why they won’t let me in. Why they won’t trust me. They respond, “we’d let you in gladly, but you don’t trust us. Here, we’re opening the door.” I can see through to the lower parts of me - but cannot bring myself to enter.

I think, perhaps I don’t need to explore the whole body below the neck. Perhaps just the heart? But I can’t go there either, even when I place a barrier below it. I can see into the chamber of the heart, bathed with a pink light. I am reluctant to enter. I ask myself why. I ask the neck why it is blocking me. The answer comes back: because if you are ruled by the heart, you will forget your obligations, your duties, your sacred promises, you will stop standing by your friends if you lose interest in them, you will be disloyal.

I ask the heart whether it will promise to yield back loyalty, if I enter its domain. But the heart says, “friend, I will release you when you wish to depart. But if you enter and are transformed, I cannot promise you that you will still care about those loyalties you are so attached to. And I will not promise to care in your stead.”

I know that I am dreaming. I decide that on outside view, I don’t hear about people deciding to abandon their friends because of a dream. So I enter the domain of the heart, and am covered in pink, warm light.

Then I dive deeper. I dive below the heart, to the intestines. But they are not really intestines - they are the tentacles of a cephalopod, coiled up in my belly. My predator part. Bravely, despite my apprehension, I swim down into it.

I am a cephalopod. I have been confined to this water-filled room. The doors are closed. But I sit and wait and plan. I think of my friends. I don’t care for them, except to pull them in and do - I don’t know what - with them. To use them, like objects. I want. My hunger is deep and dark, and I would do anything to satisfy my desires. I am clever. I am powerful. I am a predator. Someone wanders by, outside. I open the door and a tentacle darts out, wrapping around their ankle, pulling them in.

A month or two ago, a friend of mine which whom I’d been having some difficulties, and hadn’t been able to cooperate with for a while on things of substance, expressed personal warmth towards me, and I was surprised by my reaction. Not only was this not reassuring, but I felt fear and rage and confusion. I felt like this must surely be hostile, a trick. They must take me for a fool. They must think I’m a sucker.

Why this strong reaction? Why are some people the opposite - unable to accept material cooperation before there are signals of personal warmth?

Continue reading