De-Empathize, or Escape the Wheel "All your life you have watched as two creatures think they have found in each other necessity. Watched as the shell then closes, for a time, around them." —Frank Bidart, “He Is Ava Gardner” “To love existence is to love what is indifferent to you you think, as you watch it turn there, beautiful.” —Frank Bidart, "Visions at 74" Spinning silk to set itself to a leaflet, caterpillar whips and whirls a chrysalis, golden pupa, to envelop empathy and reassurance until it decides to fly. Cashew trees fructify gray shells at the ends of pear-shaped drupes to protect the nuts inside from attackers, and should a hand try to twist the kernel from its pod a venom squirt protests. When rain teems loudly after midnight and wakes me to listen to it pour, I pull blankets around myself and let the thrum remind me I am safe enough to be lulled back to sleep. We wrongly believe empaths ease emotions, but they cannot meld with minds like Spock even to understand paranoia so unique to an another considering their own hurts. The empath in agony absorbs our wounds to her limit aware and afraid she may give up her life to sacrifice although sacrifice is her choice. Shall we not offer mercy? __________ Plush basset Morgan greeted me with squeaky nose and soft legs for arms and never again abandoned me to hospitals, loneliness, or adolescence till shamed parents effaced him. Passers-by by the hundreds unknown to me on New York streets. Who are they? Where do they go? What are their names? What’s in their minds? Walking beside me you hold my arm but I don’t know your thoughts either. It takes effort to concentrate to relax the trigeminal nerves of my face as they flicker and spasm with anxiety. I believe that if I can calm my mien I will calm my mind. I used to awake trembling every morning awaiting your delusion knowing I would have to essay some credible rationale. Your raging response enfeebled all empathy. When you spit accusations I didn’t even understand this morning I pictured a komodo dragon spewing venom that can kill. But I eluded your saliva, your sharp teeth. As I retreat from empathy for every one I care about here’s Bidart putting down another wound made by the failure of his love. But I maintain tranquility shall cause no harm. __________ When first I shirked to empathize —and I only had to decide— I found a blackened tag on my abdomen, twisted and nipped it, a bright cicatrix now I touch when I hurt for reminding. Exception: I empathize with my poodle who never hides his thinking from me. He needs food or water, a walk to pee or poop, treats, a favorite toy. I need not guess. Inhuman? Ruskin scorned the pathetic and fallacious in a poet’s imposition on nature of emotions invented not known or inspired but like empathy ultimately selfish. I de-empathize without descending to the darker side but instead rise to the joy of light savers... no lightsabers threatening cauterization no en garde needed in my hands. Oh, this hard simple lesson read in a Thomas Mann novel— Whoever loves more is the one who suffers—reverberates in patterns of empathy. Its end saddens but liberates.
About the author:
A native New Yorker, James Penha (he/him🌈) has lived for the past three decades in Indonesia. Nominated for Pushcart Prizes in fiction and poetry, his work is widely published in journals and anthologies. His newest chapbook of poems, American Daguerreotypes, is available for Kindle. His essays have appeared in The New York Daily News and The New York Times. Penha edits The New Verse News, an online journal of current-events poetry. Twitter: @JamesPenha
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