Balancing equanimity and empathy

There is a lot of posturing on social media at the best of times, and I am not one to judge anyone else’s posture: You are you are, then you are who you represent yourself to be. I’ve known people who represent themselves pretty accurately, and those who have well-curated facades. You know them, too.

I’m spending more time on social media these days than I have in years, and I’m happy to be there/here. I like the sense of connection, even as I find the shallowness and brevity, not to mention the sheer volume of contacts, frustrating. But used sparingly, it’s good.

Now that I’m blogging daily, I am finding that I’m feeling the need to adjust what I write in order to not offend the voices in my head that I pretend are other people (I need a shorthand for that, open to suggestions). Specifically, I want to express my joy without being perceived as unaware of others’ suffering.

I have friends who use the suffering of others to demonstrate their empathic powers (and I use the word “powers” for a reason). They are, as the kids say, “showing out,” making a display of their empathy, of their concern for the world. They feel others’ pain, and if you don’t show the same sort of feeling of others’ pain, they put the hurt on YOU. You will feel the pain, damn it.

I have a friend who recently attacked me on social media (not by name, thanks bud) for…being happy. He finds this delusional, because Bill Gates is behind this and it’s all a big conspiracy to push deadly vaccines, etc, etc. (And I’M delusional…) But the basic attack is that I appear to be happy, and thus, I can’t be aware of what’s actually happening. I live in a bubble. I’m naive.

This is silly. I am well aware of what’s happening. I have been aware of the tragedies of life for a long, long time. I traveled in India and Afghanistan from a young age, and saw horrific things, from starving children to dogs gnawing on fresh corpses; I have personally suffered the ravages of amoebic dysentery and dengue fever; I’ve had a lot of death in my life, including this month, and I’ve confronted my own vulnerability every day of my life.

Beyond my little life, I have read about, heard about and seen up close the daily tragedies that dog every life, every step. I know history, and its devastation. I am aware of the cruelty of people, of the madness of crowds, of the fickleness of leaders, of the I am in touch with many people, often, and I hear about their struggles, their defeats.

None of this makes me special; it just makes me alive. Life is hard and then you die. Understood.

Now we find ourselves in an intensified version of what has always been true: We are vulnerable, we are not safe, we will die, and so will everyone around us. None of us want to; but it doesn’t matter. It’s just a matter of timing.

And this timing sucks. I had finally gotten my life organized exactly the way I have long wanted it, around perpetual travel, and now I’m stuck. But even now, the choice remains: Focus on the upside or the downside? I know how lucky I am, and I am not complaining. I’m taking full advantage of this isolated, stationary existence to get things done. When I return to travel, I will have a lot of creation under my belt, and new professional connections and opportunities. I already have new friendships from this circumstance, and have seen others wilt under the heat.

I am grateful for it all.

Pain is always widespread, it’s the human condition. I’ve been connected to three people dying this month, two family members, and the brother of a close friend. I’ve had a friend in the hospital. I’ve had friends losing businesses. I’ve had two friends who (probably) had COVID 19.

I have felt for them all, I have felt some of their pain (by no means all, or even very much of it, that’s pretty presumptuous, don’t you think?). I have sympathized. Most importantly, I have checked in, kept in touch, offered what I have to offer.

But the scale of what’s coming at us is beyond me. There will be SO much suffering, and SO much destruction – of lives, careers, families, IRAs, businesses – that it is quite beyond my ability to empathize in any but the most general abstract way. (I HOPE it remains as abstract as possible.)

So I don’t quite know what to say when I want to express my joy, my creativity, the ways I’m turning this time into various plusses. Do I need always to caveat it with a nod to the suffering of others? The suffering of others is the backdrop to our lives. Now is different, because it’s more widespread, but there’s always suffering.

I am happy right now. I’m grateful. I am healthy. I have a small, fixed income and I’m actually getting interesting work. I am MAKING things I care about, with this blog, my site, my music. I am roughly as happy as I ever am.

I see misery, particularly that in the news, but it’s still pretty far way. (Actually, it’s not far away at all; I see homeless people all day every day, and ride though their camps on my daily bike ride. The poor are always with us.)

But I refuse to suffer abstractly. I’m not filling my head with bad news all the time, I’ve seen what that does to a boy. I’m staying positive, staying focused on things I can affect, things I can change, things I need to do, people I can help. The larger world is just going to have to do what it does without my constant attention and worry and “concern.”

I’m lucky. This time. So far. When it’s time for me to suffer, I’ll be there for it. Until then, I’m going to be as joyous as I can. It’s the main thing I can do. Life goes on.

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Thank you for checking out my blog - it’s just the tip of the iceberg.  I am working on projects regarding music history, Japanese culture and my songwriting.

- A week-by-week music history website,
- An upcoming book on Japanese culture, Japan from Anime to Zen
- A YouTube channel, featuring random songs and thoughts for the pandemic
- Original music on Spotify, with links to Patreon and Amazon 

David Watts Barton

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