How Could Anyone Know How Another Feels?

2 minute read

The thought of my family’s graves
Was the only moment
I used to experience true love
That love remains infinite
As I’ll never be the man my father is

How can you “just be yourself”
When you don’t know who you are?
Stop saying “I know how you feel”
How could anyone know how another feels?

— Nightwish, Song of Myself (2011)

I don’t remember my friend’s exact words — she said something along the lines of “the greatest pain is someone’s indifference to your pain”.

My dad’s been dying of ALS, for a year and a half now. The family friends who told me — I know that they care, but I know that they don’t know how I feel. And I don’t expect them to. The same goes for friends I made later in life.

I had only hoped for one person to understand (a long time ago). Boy, that went well. When they told me about a death in their family, I couldn’t quite relate, but as the AI that I was (am?), I asked/read around to choose what to say and do. I wanted to help, but didn’t want to “cheer up” someone from grieving. I did the best I could. Then a few months later, when I told them about my dad’s disease, I got “I’m in a happy place now, sorry I don’t feel anything.” I had no idea if that was normal or fucking cold, or maybe the two aren’t mutually exclusive. I talked to an evolutionary anthropology friend about empathy. Is it necessary that we know how another feels? And is it even possible? I recall that we seemed to agree, even when we can’t mentally simulate another person’s feelings, it doesn’t mean we don’t care or can’t do anything for them. It’s the action we take that counts.

I’ve been suppressing my feelings so well that I only feel a vague sense of anxiety most of the time, not pain. I have to — no one was gonna do my interviews for me or can write my dissertation now. I’ve kept working as I normally would, if not harder. Sometimes guilt would wash over me — “How can I maintain ‘business as usual’?” “Why am I not suffering (enough) from my dad’s pain?” “How can I still write, think, and work?” But then I’d realize, I can’t save my dad’s life by destroying my own life. I’m not helping anyone by suffering. I’m not heartless for not being drenched in my dad’s pain — I can’t know how he feels because I don’t have the same disease (I don’t know if one day I will). But I don’t have to — it can only be the action I take that counts. I watched Marvin’s Room before I knew my dad’s situation worsened. One sister spent her whole life taking care of the sick father whereas the other ran away before her life could get consumed. I understand them both, but I can’t choose either. I hope to do the right thing for my dad who gave me life, and also for my life that I only got to live once.

I’ve had this post-it by my window for forever now, that says ‘Keep breathing, don’t lose focus.’

I’ve had this post-it by my window for forever now, that says ‘Keep breathing, don’t lose focus.’