Caring So You Don’t Have To…

Empathy can get you in trouble. Well, mine can anyway.

I reckon I have quite a bit of empathy. It’s one of my better traits. If you’re feeling sorry, for instance, I don’t just feel sorry that you are sorry, I really feel sorry.

There was an old episode of Star Trek that had an Empath Lady on it. No, she wasn’t green and, no, Kirk didn’t roger her. I kind of identified with her, though. She had an added 'bonus empath' thing going on where she could take the bad feeling from another person into herself and make that person okay. That’s quite a cool superpower in my book.

What it means for me, in practical terms, is that I tend to stick my nose in to places where it really doesn’t belong. Whatever little scenario I may happen upon in life, I tend to pick up on the emotion of it and then I simply have to get involved.

Supposing you were at your car and you had lost your keys. You’re hunting through your pockets and your bag but you can’t find them. People may walk past you and perhaps note your slightly panic-stricken face, the manic way you fumble in your wallet. People may walk on by. Not me. I will feel your pain and, because your pain is now my pain, I will have to stop and help you look.

That’s nice, isn’t it?

Nice Ken.

Except, it isn’t. Not always. No.

Suppose you’ve lost your keys but you know you have them somewhere, it’s just a matter of a little quiet, embarrassed, slightly-manic-hunting-about-your-person. You’ll be fine, it’ll all be fine. Suddenly, though, there’s this leering buffoon in your face who wants to help you look. He’s got down and peered under your car but there’s a puddle and suddenly he’s all wet and muddy and you’ve found your keys now and everything is fine except it’s not because now the prattling buffoon is going on about how it’s not a problem that he got himself all soiled on your behalf when You Patently Didn’t Need Him To… and oh why doesn’t he please just Go Away?

Here’s the most recent time my empathy got me in bother.

I was in the local shop, as I often am on Saturday morning, getting the paper and those other bits and pieces which are central to the success of a leisurely weekend morning. There was an old-old lady there, perusing the bread section. My mind gave her a moment, some passing thought, ‘poor old-old lady, making a difficult decision over bread’, something along those lines, then I passed on.

At the check out counter, I engaged in pointless banter with the cashier lady. I always do this because she tends to thank people a lot so I like to see how many 'thank you's' I can get out of her in one go. My record is nineteen.

As I was getting checked-out, the old-old lady appeared at my side, next in line for the till. I saw straight away that she had rejected the bread option in favour of one colossal carton of milk which she was struggling to keep in her arms.

My empathy kicked in. It wasn’t just that I was sorry she was struggling with her large dairy purchase, my knees actually started buckling on her behalf. My suddenly-ancient breath started to come shallow and hard.

My groceries were taking up most of the counter top but there was a little space to one side. I turned to the lady and smiled comfortingly.

“You can rest your milk up there on the counter,” I said.

She eyed me silently… distrustfully.

“Come on,” I said, “it’s not like I’m going to steal it.”

Reluctantly, hesitatingly, the old-old lady heaved her vat of milk onto the counter and my knees buckled a little less.

There then followed a little interlude involving a bag.

I usually bring my own bag to the shop. They charge 23 cent for one and that’s just silliness. Sometimes, though, I forget and, on those days, I usually struggle back to the car with all the bits-and pieces clasped precariously in my arms. It’s not that I’m a tightwad, it’s just that 23 cent for a bag is a bit silly.

This morning, I had forgotten my bag and, this morning, I also had quite a lot of stuff. So (check out Rockefeller here) I actually splashed out on a bag. I know… a whole bag. The cashier was shocked, I was shocked. As I loaded my things in my lovely new bag, I talked to her about the wisdom of bringing your own bags while she thanked my profusely for the insight.

I left.



I took the old-old lady’s milk.

I got as far as the exit doors when the shout went up. “Excuse me? Excuse me?” The cashier lady was beckoning to me. “Can you come back? Thanks, thanks very much.”

The cashier was a study in grateful consternation and the old-old lady was shooting daggers at me. This is a metaphor but only just.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“It’s the milk.”

I smiled my best empath smile. “Ah, no, that milk isn’t mine, I just told this… lady she could rest it on the counter for a-”

“You took it.”

“No, I didn't.”

"Yes, thanks, you did."

I looked in my bag. There were two identical cartons of milk. Mine and Not-Mine.

I apologised to the old-old lady, a lot, and the cashier seemed grateful for this, but the old-old lady was neither forgiving not believing and her final remnant of faith in human nature was utterly blown away by this savage injustice that had been done to her.

I could tell all of this.

On account of my empathy. 


Jim Murdoch said...

I also like to think of myself as a caring person. Most of my caring I do online these days having developed an aversion to being outside any more than I absolutely have to. Of course the main way in which I interact with others is via comments like this. I’ll tell you what’s bugging me at the moment. I made a comment on a site a while back—February, okay—and it’s one of those sites that requires comment moderation and, to this day, it’s just sitting there unmoderated, unapproved, invisible and that bothers me because, as you well know, I generally put a lot of thought into my comments and a corresponding number of words loquacious bugger that I am and it bothers me that my thoughtful, caring comment is just sitting there. I don’t especially need the world to know I cared enough to comment but it bothers me that the site owner doesn’t seem to care that I cared enough to spend, I dunno, a half-hour of my life to show that I cared about what she had to say in her post. I don’t like it when people don’t respond to my comments because I don’t know why they’ve not responded: do they think I’ve overstepped the mark? (Yes, I know you’re guilty of it but I’m saving up your guilt for my own nefarious ends.) I don’t do things for the thanks but when I don’t get the thanks I get confused because, to my mind, the most natural thing is to say thanks albeit maybe not nineteen times in the one conversation.

Out of curiosity, why one earth did you pick a carton of Dutch milk for your picture?

Ken Armstrong said...

Dutch Milk? Ha. If I was any good of a writer I would spout some bullshit about how it's what my choice says to the reader rather than how I actually arrived at it.

Here's the truth.

Every week, I go on to Flickr and look for Creative Commons photos that might suit that week's blog post. Then I get the permission to use it. This week, I tried the search word 'Empathy' but it was too vague and wishy-washy. So I went looking for milk cartons. I liked the monocrome effect of this one and also the fact that is discarded and unappreciated and useless. I also seem to have a thing for foreign languages that I can't understand. Everything seems to have the potential for more depth and meaning in a foreign language. I know this is wrong.

As for comments, I value all my comments and yours especially. I look forward to what you will say. I don't feel the responsibility to always reply. I think a comment can be diffused and diluted by some certain replies where they stand majestically on their own.

I realise that I don't meet all of the most basic responsibilities of a friend and correspondent but, if I did, there would not be a new blog post every week.

In summary, I'm a useless auld feck and I'm always appreciative that you come by and talk to me. :)

LuceWomanGetsAbout said...

Haha. Thief.
I have too much empathy too - I poke my nose into situations and too often end up more upset than the person with whom I was empathising.
I also had an 'old lady in a shop' incident. I was in the hospital shop, wearing scrubs, perusing the gardening magazines, when a little old lady in pyjamas and dressing gown came and stood next to me. She was about 4'10" and 6 stone, and she was looking up at the magazines on the shelf above my head.
I felt her elbow me gently. She nodded to the mags on the high shelf.
'Pick me up' she said.
I glanced down at her and she nodded to the high shelf again.
'Pick me up?' she said again.
It was only when she started struggling as I grabbed her around her waist that I realised she wanted me to pass her the magazine called 'Pick Me Up'.
The tragedy is that this is an entirely true story.

Ken Armstrong said...

Hey Luce. You told me this story once before and it has quickly become one of my favourite stories ever, anywhere. I tell it regularly and only wish it could have happened to me! :) x

Bubsy's Blog said...

This made me chuckle Ken, perfect after work reading.

My Granny used to call me Em the Empath nd would often tell me not to take on others feelings or I wouldn't have room for my own, I hate seeing people upset or struggle as it really weighs on me.

I find myself balling my eyes out at all sorts and even when the dogs have their annual jabs, well the vet may as well be sticking a needle in me!

Lucky one emotion I manage to escape from is the giddy love that youngsters seem to express when they bounce into work having met a young fella!

They get all excited, telling me how wonder they feel and isnt it wonderful they've met the one? I just stare blankly, wrinkle my nose & wait... but nope nothing!

Thanks for a lovely read x