empathy

Full and Reverberating

My room has always been a mess. Today, when I say “mess,” I mean I have a couple piles of books and some empty spaces on a shelf—or, I have a shelf completely filled and an overflow collected on my bedroom floor. There are stacks of papers on my bookshelf, on my nightstand, on my desk, on the printer on my desk… I know what they all say (or at least I did at one point). At the end of the semester, all of these papers will go into folders. They will occupy a bottom shelf or a box somewhere. They will look like accomplishments, be useful, provide some frame of reference—but, most of all, I tell myself they won’t be familiar. I’ve stopped myself from doodling in the margins. When I run my fingers over the sheets, I’ll feel nothing but paper. I won’t feel the sensitivity that ripples over the too thin skin of a scar.

The word “mess” meant something different in 2009. Then, a mess looked like clothes piled higher than my desk because every morning was a test to see what I was able to wear. Shirts that looked like days I didn’t want to remember, sweaters that smelled like nights I shouldn’t have gone out, pants that almost whispered words I don’t think I ever heard. In 2009, the tops of my dresser and vanity were covered with papers and cards that my eyes refused to read. Drawers were stuffed with pictures and poems scrawled in adolescent writing. Stuffed animals, dried flowers, mixtapes (which really meant CDs, because, well, it was 2009) were all shoved under my bed. I knew these things were there, but only when I thought about it—or only when I touched them.

In 2009, my father asked me why I never cleaned my room. I started to cry and said I was afraid. If I shut my bedroom door, nobody shamed me until I cleaned it.

If nothing else, my young adult life epitomizes the way I’ve spent my time tactfully avoiding games of Minesweeper. It’s not that I hate everything. The problem is, even the good memories are bombs hiding too close to those taunting red 3s. The problem is that every object creates another image of someone who looks like me. It’s this feeling of some uncanny double—it’s someone I can’t control, but at one point she had my body.

I’ve struggled with this idea my entire life. This strange feeling of oddly “supernatural” attraction or attention to certain objects. For so long, I’ve tried to understand why I am unnerved by good memories and the way they make me feel unsettled (let’s assume I can at least begin to understand the bad). Recently, I’ve become increasingly interested in the idea of (what I’ve come to characterize and understand as) “resonance” made possible by media and forms. How can media create reverberations of people and moments that are no longer present?

Since coming to graduate school, and college more generally, I feel like I have encountered potential explanations for the feelings I’m attempting to describe here. Maybe this is some form of repression. Maybe it’s loss and grief for things, people, and time I recognize but cannot replace. Maybe it’s just nostalgia. I am deeply unsatisfied by almost all of these explanations.

The fear I described to my father as a young teenager feels closer to what I want to call “resonance” now, but it also references some form of dissonance. There’s some tangible struggle between a present moment trying to live alongside the past. While I want to support the idea that affective objects can produce similar feelings to what I am describing, this is still unsatisfying because it does not accurately describe “dissonance” as I am trying to understand it.

Dissonance is disembodiment. Recently, I’ve been reading about how discourses of spiritualism were used to talk about Victorian “new” media and technology. Using spiritualism to explain the unsettling feeling and presentness of disembodied energy can be read as a desire to explain the power and presence of something that is not there. It is some force driving or reproducing a moment that has no tangible existence. It is real only in that it references something invisible.

Dissonance is the somewhat supernatural feeling of uncanniness—the idea that someone has been “here” before “doing this,” and that someone might have been you. It is the way a photograph of a person confirms the absence of a body. It is the way marginalia proves another hand touched a page. Dissonance comes when I’m listening to a saved voicemail from father, when I hear the recording of his voice, now disembodied. In these moments, sound is the proof of absence, but it is also the proof of presence.

Today, I feel this less. I try to keep my apartment free of all things that are not related to graduate school. I call it minimalism to the point where I almost believe it. Last week my inability to use a computer resulted in my opening a conversation from months ago. I read the conversation like I could see the people talking. The author of the blue bubbles on the right hand side, I almost felt like I knew her.


Noelle Hedgcock is an MA student in English at Syracuse University. Her research and teaching interests focus on nineteenth-century British literature and culture.

Things you think about when you’re in the ICU holding your dad’s hand and he’s still under anesthesia from open heart surgery but he opens his eyes for the first time

NoteWhen I agreed to write for Metathesis this month I planned on starting off with something strident, political, and sharp. I had this series all planned out about football and fascism, “third way” pro-lifers, and Stardew Valley in the age of Trump. Maybe I’ll revisit these before months’ end, but I did not count on how tired I would feel by the first few weeks of our new regime, nor how acutely I would sense the Internet’s saturation with thinkpieces on yet another new advancing horror to resist. These last several weeks have felt inhumane to me in a vague way, not because of any great suffering on my part, but because the relentless grief and anger that the rise of white nationalism to our country’s highest offices inspires has a deadening effect on the senses. In that spirit, I want to share something that, at least in the reading, feels more humane to me.


That it makes sense why they need to lower a person’s body temperature to 92 degrees for such a major surgery but it still feels awful holding his frigid hand.

~ ~ ~

That his hands and feet are swollen, so swollen the skin feels stretched like a cheap water balloon.

~ ~ ~

A conversation you had in the days leading up to the surgery. You didn’t talk much — he wasn’t too forthcoming about his feelings and your attempts to solicit anything from him felt trite and obvious.

How are you feeling? Well I had a heart attack and doctors are about to break my sternum open, run all my blood through an external pump while my heart gets cut up, so pretty bad I guess.

So you don’t have that conversation, and instead, after a while, you ask him something more open-ended and he tells you that it’s weird to be on a hospital bed surrounded by family so soon after burying his own dad. You think about both scenes. With his dad, there were no father/son conversations at all. Grandpa’s shallow breaths were slow and quiet; everyone in the room traded stories in hushed, laughing tones about the shared violence of their childhoods. Snow piled up on the deck furniture outside the sliding doors of his hospice room. Different with your dad. There is a lot of worry, a little self reflection, and a lot of middling conversation that helps stave off the heaviness of futurity and risk. Not like with grandpa who was practically already gone. Your dad’s well enough to make the waiting hurt. With your dad, the room is smaller, and there’s a roommate who’s a lot older and has just had the same surgery your dad is going to have. The roommate dies overnight.

~ ~ ~

You think his trimmed beard doesn’t look that bad at all and that his chin is way less recessed than your mom says it is.

~ ~ ~

The thing about your dad is you feel like if you had lived his life you’d have a lot more to share with your kids when they visit.

~ ~ ~

His eyes open and you get the sense that maybe they shouldn’t open yet. His eyes bulge. You think he looks confused. When your mother cries he looks concerned, maybe a little guilty. You wonder about your own cholesterol and look at your wife. One of your sisters starts to cry too though not the one you expect.

~ ~ ~

You think about that breathing tube.

~ ~ ~

You don’t feel regret but an adjacent feeling about not talking to him more before the surgery. You wonder when the last time was that you both had an extended conversation about something you mutually felt was important and that was not triggered by a family crisis. You’re both people who like to argue, like to be right, but you’ve stopped arguing with any regularity, in part because it stresses your mom out, but also because it’s hard work and makes you feel a little depressed. You always get the sense that he thinks you’re patronizing him. But when the arguing went away, so did the sense of intimacy. You figure the last conversation like that must have been five or so years ago in Canandaigua at a bar you had been to once with some old friends from high school. They have good dark beer on tap which gets dad tipsy fast but makes him feel good because its darkness signifies legitimacy. It’s about forty minutes from where you live and forty minutes from where he lives. Feels more like neutral ground than most places. You initiated under the pretense of catching up, which was true, but also because you had two things to disclose, one religious and you thought minor, the other academic and you thought more serious. He saw it the opposite way. You disagreed but didn’t feel angry. You felt respected and friendly.

~ ~ ~

There was that time — it comes back now, flies by unsolicited — when you were a kid, who knows how old, young, and were getting ready to play in the snow outside (a loop forward to that hospice room). It was a process and dad was helping out. Sweatpants. Wool socks over sweatpants. Flannel. Sweatshirt. Snowpants, zip, clip, clip. Jacket, go Bills. Gloves. Here you got hung up. Your fingers won’t go into the right spot. They kept slipping into a space between the glove’s shell and the fuzzy lining and you were hot and whiny already, itching to get outside, climb the hill from the plow, make angels, play with next-door-neighbor Sarah. Sisters already outside. Dad’s trying to help, shoving, pulling, telling you to push. Then you’re crying and dad yells, incredibly, “be a man.” You remember him saying be a man a few times but it might just be echoes in the remembering. You cry harder, say, I’m just a kid not a man.

~ ~ ~

Think about how bad it feels to have come so close to losing dad and not given him a grandkid yet. Think about what a bad reason that is to have a kid. Think about futurity in the academic sense, the bad politics of the nuclear family, and dysfunction, but still you consider bargaining with God about letting dad pull through if you both would just make a kid finally.

~ ~ ~

Why you remembered the incident with the glove.

~ ~ ~

An uncanny, happy intensity when he squeezes back in response to your squeeze.

~ ~ ~

Think about kissing him on the forehead, remember you performed the same ritual for his dad as he lay on his deathbed, and then again in his casket. Decide not to here. Superstitious.

~ ~ ~

Mostly just you wanting. Want him to be comfortable. Want him to feel ok again. Want him to not die. Want him to have to face the fallout of his choices. Want to be able to yell at him. Want him to be honest with you. Want your relationship with him to be less angsty. Want him to not have to feel bad about the stuff you think he should probably feel bad about. Want to recapture a common ground. Want to not put your own partner through this mess of tubes and numbers and sutures. Want to not have to talk to people about this experience. Want to leave. Want to not cry. Want him not to die. Want and want and want.

~ ~ ~

The nurse talking about fluids and temperatures and involuntary twitches due to the sedation starting to wear off.

You think about what it means that he looks beautiful.

 

Thanks to Charles Matthew Petrie, Rachel Elizabeth Arrieta, and John Stadler for their invaluable feedback.


Jordan Wood is a Ph.D candidate at Syracuse University where he writes about video games and other things.

Empathy and the Danger(s) Disengagement

 

 

 

For the past couple of years, I’ve been keeping a list.

Admittedly, it’s not an original concept, being a mental exercise adapted from one of many optimistic Pinterest boards encouraging meditative mindfulness and gratitude in the upcoming New Year. Instead of coming up with a soon-to-be neglected resolution, this effort at self-improvement requires little more than keeping a record of positive memories, noteworthy events, or otherwise “good things.”

In addition to brown paper packages tied up with strings, my list of “Good Things to Remember from 2016” ranged from personal achievements, to exciting sport victories, cultural and artistic high points, and celebrated milestones: in February, the Carolina Panthers – my home state’s football team – made it to Super Bowl L, where a spectacular halftime performance by Beyoncé Knowles-Carter called attention to the Black Lives Matter activist movement on the biggest stage in televised sports. In April, Knowles-Carter released her powerful visual album, Lemonade, an unflinching tribute to black women, honoring their voices, and acknowledging the struggle of living while black in the United States. My sister was married in May, my brother graduated from high school in June, and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s transformative musical, Hamilton, was nominated for sixteen Tony awards, and won eleven. After nearly eight months of intensive study, at the end of September I successfully passed my department’s Ph.D. Oral Qualifying Exam, and I subsequently took an impromptu celebratory trip to visit an old friend in Halifax.

Looking back, however, it’s easy to see the gaps in the record. Sometime around early June, the number of items in the list began to dwindle, and around mid-November, the documentation completely stops.

2016

Unsurprisingly, as pieces of cultural commentary, Internet memes are more productive and illuminating than many realize.

To say that the year 2016 has been fraught with tension is a tremendous understatement.[1] As Thomas Paine wrote, these are the times that try men’s [and women’s] souls, and in these past twelve months, it seems like we’ve run the gauntlet, a hundred times over. This is the year that Taiwan may be the first East Asian nation to achieve marriage equality, and the year that the deadliest shooting in American history was carried out against LGBTQ+ people at the Pulse Club in Orlando. This was the year of the United Kingdom’s decision to withdraw from the European Union, of the spread of far-right populist fervor across Europe, and the rise of white supremacist ideologies in the highest political offices and pulpits in the United States. The 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro saw, for the first time, a Refugee Olympic Team competing as independent participants, and this is the year that the Syrian Refugee Crisis reached its most desperate peak.

Political forces and governmental stratagems seemingly out of control dominated the domestic and international landscape, plaguing media outlets with misinformation and fake news. We watched tragedies unfold in real time,[2] counted the deaths of too many beloved and inspiring figures, and anxiously waited for the other shoe to drop, and keep on dropping.

In the face of all this, we have prepared to resist, and continue to call others and ourselves to higher standards of vigilance and accountability. We must continue to read, to think, to create, to teach and engage. This month’s series on empathy and education has attempted to provide a space for admitting our fears, confronting difficult questions regarding possible failures, and supply encouragement for the task now, and ahead.

Every winter, my family stages a viewing of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the scene captured above, from The Two Towers, has always proven to be enormously compelling. Coming at the end of one of the film’s two climactic battle scenes, Frodo’s haggard vulnerability and Sam’s motivational speech resonates with pathos, and displays the power of oral tradition, the written word, and the driving force of narrative in general.

While stories may drive us, oftentimes, “most fantasy provides an excursion from the normal order of things, in the same way that carnival and Saturnalia were an inversion of the normal order, a letting-off of steam in order to facilitate a return to business-as-usual.”[3] Following the Electoral College’s dispiriting conformity to historical tradition, and several weeks after the initial shock, we find ourselves now couched in the festive spirit of holiday celebrations, and all-too-ready to turn over a new leaf. It may be tempting to “get on with our lives,” as the president-elect lately urges, and to pull back from the front lines, and not necessarily forget, but forgive and quietly disengage.

In times like these, although stories remain important, I think more often of the impassioned plea Merry issues to the Ents on their decision to abstain from action, to “weather such things as we have always done.”

“You are young and brave,” the hobbit is told, by much elder and wiser folk, then cautioned, “But your part in this tale is over. Go back to your home.” His friend Pippin tries to reason with him and says, “It’s too big for us. What can we do in the end?”

Fiction can no longer serve only as an escape from reality; academics can no longer afford to distance themselves from that which appears too startling, too surreal,[4] too beyond our capabilities to successfully engage. My list of “Good Things to Remember from 2017” may be a bit more difficult to attend to, but one of the first things at the top of that list will be the opportunity to keep on teaching, and to lead students through learning about race and literary texts, to seek out difficult yet productive discussions, and to foster communication and understanding.

There is good to look after, and our part in this tale is never too big to fight for.

[1] For those in need of hopeful optimism, it is equally important to recall that a lot of positive changes have been put into effect this year. To begin, here is another list, this one detailing “99 Reasons 2016 was a Good Year” (https://medium.com/future-crunch/99-reasons-why-2016-has-been-a-great-year-for-humanity-8420debc2823#.6zrnibfvu)

[2] In an insightful piece on the consciousness of language use and suicide, Chinese author Yiyun Li complicates the concept of a tragedy in terms of private pain and public acknowledgement: “That something is called a tragedy, however, means that it is no longer personal. One weeps out of private pain, but only when the audience swarms in and claims understanding and empathy do people call it a tragedy. One’s grief belongs to oneself; one’s tragedy, to others” (“To Speak is to Blunder.” The New Yorker: Personal History. 2 January 2017 Issue).

[3] This fascinating article analyzes the differences of empathetic and intellectual effort necessary when engaging in the genres of science-fiction versus fantasy, and analyzes the models of resistance offered up by key texts from each genre: https://godsandradicals.org/2016/12/03/models-for-resistance/

[4] Ultimately, instead of “fascism,” Merriam-Webster selected “surreal” as the 2016 word of the year.