In some ways, we are always alone.
The only mind we can ever know is our own. All our interactions with other people is based on that premise. And half the time we don’t understand our own minds all that well either.
We are trapped within an endless barrage of our own thoughts. Sometimes those thoughts come to us with other voices, our mind’s way of processing them, but really they’re just the clamoring of our ids and superegos with various masks. We project our own thoughts on other people. We assume that if we have laidback kind of thoughts, other people have laidback kind of thoughts and the ones who don’t are just making trouble for themselves and others. We assume that if we are judgmental, even if we keep it to ourselves, other people judge us as harshly as we do.
We can only ever know ourselves. Empathy is when we use that knowledge to try to understand other people.
As a person who suffers from depression and the occasional obsessive episode that sometimes borders on psychotic, you can imagine how frustrating it is to be in my own head all the time. At times, it’s like being in an abusive relationship that I’m unable to leave. I look in the mirror, that classic moment of introspection, and wish that I wasn’t stuck with myself for the rest of my life.
I wonder what it’s like to wake up as a different person, to think their constant thoughts and not just snatch at the relatively miniscule percentage of what they share. I wonder what it’s like to be schizophrenic and how terrifying it can be. I wonder what it’s like to be beautiful, to walk around with that kind of power but also to experience the dismissal and expectation of upkeep that accompanies it. I wonder what it’s like to not look at food and view it as a frenemy. I wonder what it’s like to be a teenage boy. I wonder what it’s like to be trans. I wonder what it’s like to be a postal worker or a doctor or a barista. I wonder what it’s like to have a brain that understands calculus. I wonder what it’s like to be tall.
I am endlessly frustrated by the fact we only live the one life, that we never get to truly see things from other people’s perspectives and all we can do is put together the tiny clues that other people offer us. Even for proponents of reincarnation, having many lives is by no means assurance that you will remember what you were. You can’t use that to further your understanding of what it’s like to be someone else.
I find the best way to empathize is to hold a somewhat contradictory assumption: People probably have more in common with you than you think, but they can see the world much differently, no matter how much in common you share. This allows a neurotic like me to make the effort to put myself in a mellow person’s shoes. It also makes it infuriating when other people don’t seem to want to make the same effort back, but that’s another story for another time.
Writing requires empathy. Without it, fiction reads like an agenda. (Agenda isn’t a bad thing, but it rings false and forced in fiction.) Reading and writing is the closest thing a person can get to peeking into a person’s mind. When Stephen King called writing a form of telepathy in On Writing, he meant it in the way an image that a author wrote appears in a reader’s mind, slightly distorted but generally the same idea.
But even better, you get to read actual thoughts. You get far more of the inner voices of people in books than you ever will in real life. That’s someone else in the same predicament of not knowing anyone else’s thoughts putting a fictional character’s thoughts on a page, drawing from what they know about their own day-to-day cognitive experience and hoping they get it right.
Writing is the desperate attempt, I believe, for writers to leave their own heads and be other people. We’re bodysnatchers. It’s the closest we will ever get to understanding someone else, even if those people aren’t real, even if the telepathy itself isn’t real either.
Reading is how I learned that other people have that constant commentary in their heads, too. I learned about lives beyond my own, and for a moment I could have that elusive glimpse. I found that no matter the social, racial, religious, or mental differences, other people are still surprisingly similar. We have far more in common than we ever imagined and more than we sometimes like to admit, with our tendency to polarize issues and demonize the insidious Other.
And I see that in my writing as well, when I try so hard to get out of my head and into someone else’s. Every character I write – from the meekest little girl to the most nefarious villain – comes at least some small measure from my own experience. Every one of them has a little bit of me in them.
Considering the breadth of character types I write, is it any wonder that I have trouble with identity integration?
I am the springboard, but my imagination stands on the shoulders of other authors, with their own inner lives and struggle to leave the confines of their bodies and minds to understand someone else … only to find that someone else isn’t as different or difficult to understand as you thought.
Though I will never truly leave my head, though the image in the mirror may always have to be me, I climb the cliffs of character development every time I sink into writing a story. It’s a struggle, but if I’m lucky, sometimes I reach the top and peer into another world – see through someone else’s eyes – and for the briefest of moments, I am not myself.
Then I tumble back down the cliffs, and I break my nails down to the quick to climb up over and over to do it again.