I am a linguist who loves literature and who is fascinated by science. I quantify randomness. I paint. I travel in a power wheelchair, hoping to capture the ordinary.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The ephemeral and empathy

Les gens ne disent pas des textes. Ce ne sont pas des textes. Ils parlent, tout simplement. Et vite ils oublient ce qu’ils ont dit, qui d’ailleurs ne compte pas : ils n’ont parlé que pour parler ; leurs paroles ne sont que prétextes pour parler nous-même, c’est ainsi depuis que va le monde et ce sera ainsi jusqu’à sa fin. ("Il se souvint du minium", Bernard Deglet)

I am tempted most of the time to believe this, that we are disconnected self-centered insecure beings whom mortality dooms to be pointless and whose very nature of self-as-center allows our one possible contribution beyond this life to slip into the ephemeral. Your words are just an intonation unit of waiting, and at the first hint of a chance to take my turn I will hit the floor running. Conversation as masturbation, not as intercourse. We seek out company merely for self-mirroring validation?

But no! There is something precious and painful about being near others. We are something bigger, and our empathy, ephemeral, contributes somehow. Floats out between us, within us. I have to believe that. There is evidence presented in the posthumous work of Teresa Brennan, The Transmission of Affect, that we are not self-contained in the ways that we tend to believe.

Chally, at her blog Zero at the Bone, comments that, with disability, "I no longer trust that people will stick by me when things get inconvenient, when being my friend gets messy; that I’ll get the support I need." True. But I've been lucky. There are those few who stick around through the mess and still look me in the eyes. So few, these folks, that my gratitude may seem in unfortunate disproportion to the facts. Wipe my ass for free, speak to me in soft languages, and allow me to offer some reciprocation, some comfort in return, when your life gets messy. And there I am, bursting with all of my Leo loyalty.

At the memorial service I attended yesterday, one of these few in my life was among the principal mourners. Front and center. Those who usually see only sourness in her walked single file to greet her, touch her hair, hold her in circumstantially loving embrace. I sat midway back, parked in my wheelchair, the space small and cumbersome. She came back to greet me, touched my fingertips because I moved my arm to reach for her. Gratitude and sorrow a heavy pearl in my heart. My frustration was paramount. I could not wrap my arms around her. So I locked onto her gaze. Not just waiting for my turn to start. Just waiting. Dr. Brennan believed that empathetic reactions were just as real (and reliable?) as chemical reactions: "The origin of transmitted affects is social in that these affects do not only arise within a particular person but also come from without. They come via an interaction with other people and an environment. But they have a physiological impact" (Brennan 2004:3). I hope she was right. That we can touch without touching.

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