Empathy, imagination and weakness


It’s so easy to laugh
It’s so easy to hate,
It takes guts to be gentle and kind….

I never thought I’d quote Morrissey here, but he’s right, isn’t he?

When someone cuts you up on the motorway, or is noisier than you think they should be, or behaves in some way that inconveniences or annoys you, it’s the easiest thing in the world to exaggerate what they’ve done – to yourself, to anyone that’ll listen, to turn that inconvenience into a threat or the annoyance into endangering your life. You probably don’t even know you’re doing it. You don’t think about why they’ve done whatever it is that’s so offended you. Perhaps they haven’t even noticed they’ve done it, they’re probably too drunk or careless for that. Or, equally likely, they have noticed, but they just don’t care, they’re selfish or evil or, nearly as bad, they just don’t care what the impact is on you.

Cuts both ways, though.

We live in an era where being “feisty” is seen as an end in itself, where standing up for yourself is more important (and more recognised) than standing up for other people, where the approved instant reaction to things going against you is to fight them, as hard as you can, until you get what you want. People who fight are “champions”. Those who don’t are “quitters”. To strive, to achieve, to persevere through the pain, and never to surrender. This drive, this will to succeed, no matter the consequences, is the only truly praiseworthy attribute left. Social media, advertising, Russell Brand, they all want you to stand up and fight, for something, probably their product or their new book or DVD, but maybe that’s just me being cynical.

But this whole “stand up and fight” – even if it’s not just being manipulated for commercial ends – has a massive hole at its heart. It turns everyone into the Hulk, which is great if everyone else is a super-villian bent on world domination, but not really that helpful in reality. And it’s sad, and it’s boring, and it’s desperately unimaginative.

What makes you (and I don’t mean you specifically, gentle reader, I mean you generally, including me, of all people) so much more important than everyone else? What makes your feelings, ambitions and motives more reasonable or significant? What makes you so sure that the guy you think just did something with the sole aim of annoying you wasn’t dying or dreaming up a cure for cancer or the greatest epic since Paradise Lost or just retaliating because you did something that annoyed him, half an hour ago, and didn’t even notice it yourself? We spend so much time fighting against perceived slights and injustices we’ve forgotten one of the great pleasures of being a human being: the ability to empathise. We can do it when we get lost in a film or a book, we can slip into someone else’s skin at the turn of a well-written page or a drop of an authentic-looking tear, but in real life, people don’t tell you what they’re feeling. It’s not as easy as that.

And just because it’s not so easy, we somehow forget that real people are more complex, not less so, than the fictional ones we find it so simple to imagine ourselves into. But this, of all things, is something worth striving for, worth bursting out of our own prejudices and assumptions and trying to feel our way through to being someone else, for a moment.

And the thing is, it’s a win-win situation. For all manner of reasons.

First off, it’s probably a more valid, more accurate reflection of reality. If someone’s pissed you off, the chances are they didn’t do it on purpose. Really. Think about it. Why would they? Unless you’re a politician or a press baron or an exceptionally selfish driver, I suppose, but for the rest of us, well, it’d be nice to get it right, for once.

And then you get the consequences. Because if you’ve assumed that someone’s deliberately causing trouble, you’re faced with a dilemma. Either you “stand up and fight”, or you don’t.

If you don’t, you’ll kick yourself. You’ll assume, rightly or wrongly, that you’re a coward. You’ve run away from confrontation. You’re worse than useless, not fit for twenty-first century life, no better than an insect. All bollocks, of course, but that’s the kind of drivel we’re being fed, so it’s not surprising that people believe it, blurring the borderlines between assertiveness and aggression and behaving like pit-bulls every time someone so much as looks at them.

If you do fight, either you’ll win, or you’ll lose. If you lose, see above. Maybe you’ll take some consolation from the fact that you chose to fight in the first place, but look, life isn’t sport. It’s not all about entering the arena with your head held high and it doesn’t matter whether you win or lose. In real life, if you pick a battle, winning’s important. The loser gets nothing.

Or maybe you’ll win.

But everyone, even the most stupid, has an ounce of imagination in them somewhere. So when, fifty miles down the road or two days later or sometime next decade, you do precisely what they did, or something similar, or you speak to a friend or relation who’s done something similar, or maybe something just clicks and you think “shit, that’s why they did it”, then that ounce of imagination’s going to feel like half a ton. And you’ll realise you were wrong. And worse than that: you were a bully.

Now think about the alternative.

Maybe you have been inconvenienced, but I doubt they did it on purpose. Is it something you’ve done yourself, a thousand times? Is it something that could be down to them just having something more important on their mind, genuinely more important, and maybe the convenience of a stranger just wasn’t as high a priority as it usually is? Is it just possible that they’re not thinking what you think they’re thinking?

They’re probably great people. If you met them at a bar, or a gig, or the school gate, you’d get on like a house on fire. Worst case, you’d exchange a nod and move on. You certainly wouldn’t be reduced to a ball of pulsing hatred. And look, I don’t usually do psychobabble or general life advice, because so much of the time it’s meaningless bollocks. But this time, I don’t think it is. “Stand up and fight”? Fight who? Why?

Let it go. You’ll feel better, because you haven’t stepped away from a fight. There was no fight to step away from. They’ll feel better, because they haven’t got some psycho tailgating them or giving them dangerous looks for no apparent reasons. And it’ll cost you nothing.

Sometimes, not fighting isn’t the same as quitting. And it doesn’t show weakness. It does show something else, though, and that’s imagination.


If you liked this, there’s poems and sketches here, extracts from my novel here, and a selection of the best posts here. Oh, and please comment, like, share, whatever takes your fancy.


One comment

  1. Yep, you have my wholehearted agreement! You can’t be running round with placards ALL the time!

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