Empathy: the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation.
“How are you? I haven’t seen you in so long! Gosh, I thought of you all day on Sunday. My dear friend <redacted>’s friend killed herself on Saturday night after learning that her husband had been having an affair with her best friend.”
She went on with some additional details, the two teenage sons left motherless, the years of marital counseling that were ultimately an exercise in futility, details I barely heard through the roaring train echoing through my head. Embarrassed, I hastily wiped away the tears that had immediately sprung into my eyes without warning before she even finished the first sentence. I took a few deep breaths, willing my pulse to slow and hands to steady while she murmured sadly, “I just kept thinking of your strength. I remember you all those years ago, how you put one foot in front of the other. Do you know what strength that takes?”
Yes. I know.
It’s been two weeks since that conversation, and I can’t get that nameless, faceless woman out of my head. I’ve thought of her, that woman I never met and did not know, as I’m running. Watching a television show. Playing with my dogs. Having dinner with my girlfriends. Doing the laundry. That woman who was so blindsided by despair and devastation that she couldn’t imagine spending one. more. minute. with the agonizing, searing hot pain inside her. Seeing the mind movies, concocted by her own insidious imagination, unbidden and certainly unwanted, but ceaseless in their loop. The replayed conversations, with their subtexts now uncovered, like subtitles in a foreign film, only you didn’t realize upon first viewing that you didn’t speak the language.
It is a foolish and useless desire, but I wish I had known her, or rather, she had known me. I wonder, pointlessly and perhaps, arrogantly, if the outcome would have been different if she knew of someone who had walked through the fire and come out the other side, charred and scarred but alive. I think that I would have gone to her house and held her hand, sat with her on the bathroom floor, and said “you want to die and you might feel this way every second of every minute of every hour for weeks or months but you will not feel this way forever.”
I could make her that promise with confidence, and maybe, just maybe, she would believe it. And if she didn’t, I would say it differently, emphatically, repeatedly, until she did.
I want to be like Holden Caulfield, catching women if they come too close to the brink of double betrayal insanity, keeping them safe from the rabbit holes of their own madness.
The sad truth, of course, is that just like no one can stop children from losing their innocence, no one can heal or fix anyone else. Ultimately, I had to do all the hard work, all by myself, stop my own self from going over the cliff.
But a little piece of me wants to believe that if that woman just knew of another mere mortal, an ordinary woman with no superpowers to speak of, who could draw on reservoirs of strength and courage and fortitude she never believed existed within, that maybe she could have held on until she discovered her own.