I had my earbuds in and Dermot Mulroney reading me part three of the last Denis Johnson collection as I climbed from the car Friday morning. A man called out to me.
I paused my story. “What?”
“Do you park here and then walk into town?”
“Yeah.” I nodded, and started the story back up.
He said, “Parking downtown is a clusterfuck.”
I nodded, but the stranger kept talking. I stopped the story again.
“I was a nurse eleven years on a cancer ward, but now I’m taking a break,” he said.
I pulled my earbuds out, wrapped them around my neck, and crossed to meet him on the sidewalk. He was a huge man — easily 6’5″ — with a giant Nike duffel over his shoulder. We fell into step.
“Are you headed to work now?” I asked.
“No, I worked eleven years on the cancer ward, but now I’m taking a break. I’m just headed to the gym.”
“At 8:30 in the morning? You’re hardcore.” He reminded me of the giant prisoner I’d taught to write 3-paragraph essays years ago in medium security. That prisoner told me he was doing 25 years for killing a man when he was 19. “I was lost,” he’d said, “but now I’m a child of Jesus.”
“I come from a competitive family,” the guy beside me says. And he starts telling me about his brother the litigator and his other brother the federal investigator. “They’re savages,” he says. “They will fuck anyone over and not give a shit. We were raised in a household without empathy.”
“How’d that look?” I ask.
“Well, we grew up in a military family.”
“And empathy is weakness in a military family.”
“You have to be ready to fold up and go at any moment,” I agree.
“And our dad, he went to Korea, and then three tours in Vietnam, and he used to tell us, ‘Boys, the military needs men like me. I love killing!'”
“Oh wow. Yeah. But you worked on a cancer ward. That sounds like empathy.”
“My ex-wife asked me why I was going into nursing. ‘You don’t like people, and you don’t like helping anybody.'”
“I don’t know why I went into nursing. But I was on the cancer ward for seven years before I felt anything. I had this patient, she was dying of breast cancer, and I sat with her and felt this sadness. And it got bigger. And I realized it was empathy. I felt terrible. When my shift ended, I just stayed there, sitting with her. Everything got worse after that.”
Yeah. Yeah of course. Empathy is hard. Heavy.
And I’ve been thinking, lately, that the thing about empathy is that it isn’t about us. It’s not about figuring how to put yourself in someone’s situation or feel what they feel or anything like that. It’s about getting out of the way. About listening to the person who is suffering, and loving them.
It’s not about you.
What would it be like for a dude to grow up in that family, and go into nursing? I’ve been thinking about that all day.
I liked him. He shook me out of my story, out of my solipsistic morning commute, and told me something important. The precise moment where he recognized his feelings of empathy, and how much more difficult his life became because he learned to empathize.
It’s not about me.
I could see him in that hospital room when he told me the story. I could see her, too. And I had all this love for both of them. Seated together all this time later.