Let’s start with this quote from the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas:
…which I bring to you via my re-reading of Stephen Cope’s The Great Work of Your Life. Cope—and others—use the full quote in the context of finding purpose, vocation, dharma—the meaning of your life, as a kind of life journey encouragement. Find your purpose and do it all out (if you bring forth what is within you, it will save you) or… well, perish and die (if you do not bring forth what is within you, that act of self-denial will destroy you).
Today, I want to fracture and pervert the purpose of this quote, because what I’ve been finding out all through the pandemic is that crisis and stress really excels at bringing out what is already in you. So, if you’ve got an entrepreneur inside you, as soon as shit hit the fan, you were distilling hand sanitizer, sewing face masks, and repositioning your coffee shop into a full catering service for white collar workers trapped in their condo towers. Avowed and formerly secret artists made pandemic art—performers found ways to perform, however inferior. Me, I reverted, on a dime, from writing escapist fiction to documenting the drama and trauma of the moment—the thing most within me is the desire to document and tell the true, real story, not the false, fantastic, soothing fable. You—well, you did your thing.
What was it?
No, really. What’s that thing, your thing? What’s within you that you brought forth during the dumpster fire that was 2020?
The end of the year always makes me pensive and reflective, a combination of the darkness and the turning over of the calendar. The first blank page of 2021—what lesson can I bring to it from 2020? What pain, baggage can I shed?
The exercise is hard in 2020 (I didn’t do it in 2019; it was impossible).
But still. Even though it’s hard, I want to do it. So. What did I learn, about muself, about you, in 2020?
Mostly, my biggest lesson? (You will hate this). People don’t change. Crisis, suffering, trauma—we pretend they temper, shape, save people? They don’t. Experience, good or bad, does not so much change people as it accenctuates—brings forth—what is already in them. So assholes, in 2020, just became more assy and more perforated. Martyrs found more extreme forms of martyrdom and self-righteous self-sacrifice (“I will leave the house never, and, also, not have any contact with anyone at all, not even six feet apart and while wearing a mask, because I want to do everything in my power to keep you safe”—no, honey, you just get off on suffering and sacrificing more than everyone else, and you want your suffering and sacrifice to be more profound than everyone else’s. No judgement here, just so long as we’re clear that you’re engaging in a coping strategy and a stress response just as much as I am—and we’re not pretending that you’re so perfectly, smilingly selfless here.)
For me, I find this year of pandemic has accentuated both my mood swings (see rant above) (also, perimenopausal hormonal shifts probably aren’t helping—but chocolate sure does) and my already unforgiving self-awareness, and also, that ruthless part of me that looks at you and says, “Meh, my life will be fine, if not better, without you, you’re too much work, screw off,” and also the “You’re my people and my responsibility and I will die for you—what do you need” unconditional lovely part, and also, did I mention, mood swings.
It has also amped up the characteristic that had made me such a good journalist back in the day—that part that goes, “Actually, there aren’t two sides to this story, there are two hundred, but this is the most compelling one—why isn’t anyone telling the story like this? Fine. I’ll do it.”
That part of me, I value and like. (The moody, ruthless bitch, less so, but. People don’t change, so I’m stuck with her.)
So what has the pandemic amped up in you? Tell me. Or—it’s probably too personal. Tell yourself. Don’t cheat. Fight the temptation to say, “The way the pandemic has changed me is…” You didn’t change. We don’t change (at least, very, very rarely). But what, that was already inside you, did this crisis bring forward, spotlight, accentuate?
The only wrong answer:
“I’ve always been am empath and, OMG, the pandemic has just made me so much more attuned to the feelings and suffering of others.”
Self-proclaimed empaths, I’ve been watching you all year, and this crisis has made you ever more attuned and aware of your own suffering and very committed to expressing it to others—and generally whining about how your suffering on behalf of others is not appreciated and recognized. A) Pretty sure that’s not empathy—do check the definition. B) Not asking you to suffer on my behalf, so, like stop. C) Asking you to shut the fuck about it, though, ok? Tx.
Um. Did I mention—mood swings? Ruthless?
And also—documenting the drama and the trauma?
If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you.
Bring it forth.
PS Do, by all means, bring forth genuine expressions of empathy—we’ve never needed real empathy more. Hint: such expressions generally do not need to be preceded by the phrase, “As an empath, I…” Empaths focus on other people, notice and respond to what other people are feeling. Narcissists focus on themselves. I know it’s a blurry, hard-to-discern line, but it’s there. Find it.
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Being an empath in an elder care facility in 20fucking20 did what depression never managed to do: pushed me to suicidal ideation. No, I’m not saying it did anyone a lick of good. If you’re talking about empaths who pretend that being empaths makes them somehow a better person, absolutely, fuck that noise. But you don’t specify that, and a lot of us aren’t saying “we’re better because we’re hurting” we’re saying “we’re sensitive and we’re hurting,” and it’s not fun to hear one’s being whiny and obnoxious because they’re extra sensitive. Am I being too sensitive here? No shit, Sherlock, rejection-sensitive dysphoria pulled me out of bed an hour after I was in it because I thought maybe typing a comment would make the repeated gut-punching feeling go away. Maybe you’re not talking to me. Maybe you’re not talking to me. But you sure didn’t say you’re not talking to me. Because no, this isn’t the kind of empathy that does fuck-all for anyone. It’s just the kind that watches a body bag wheel past in the hall, and can’t stop thinking about the family that never got to say goodbye, and still has to go into the next room and asks what the miserable, confused person quarantined there wants to drink, hoping they don’t see past the face shield to the tears of exhaustion and panic that have been streaming down your face all morning. Yeah, no good thing came out of it. The good things came out of the miraculous ability to muscle through the crippling anxiety, breathe another day, and try to figure out how to care about someone else even when I wanted to die to escape the pain of the collective. You know one of the predominant ways an empath is made? Abusive childhood–you learn to track minutely for the states of those around you, because knowing how someone feels before they indicate it outright, sensing those pressure changes, may be vital for survival or at least pain-avoidance. Yes: severe empathy is selfish survivalisim, a maladaptive response to danger. Compassion is the good shit–compassion LOOKS at people and their pain and wants to make it better. It’s a thing I have, when I can breathe.
2020 has brought forward a lot of things in me–I managed to string together 4 days of contentment in a row this past week, a previously unheard of feat. I don’t even know HOW that happened. 2020 has finally proved the adage “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” as for once a completely shit extended experience has actually left me feeling stronger, rather than simply broken. 2020 brought forward in me a better, more patient, more doting, more communicative, more in-love spouse than I knew I could be. Damn, I really don’t know how that happened. It uncovered my pure fucking grit, my capacity to talk back to authority figures, my diagnosis, my support system, my resentments, my needs, my magic, my best novel to date. It seems one more thing it’s revealed in me is the capacity to not try to hide or soften it when a friend has hurt and angered me.
It is glorious that 2020 uncovered grit that allows you to speak up. ❤ I know I am bitter about self-declared empaths–the ones in my life were too busy talking about their suffering and pain to notice they had pushed me not just to suicide ideation but beyond. Writing on the edge is dangerous: it can cause pain, even to those you love. I am sorry I caused you pain, my dear long-time now internet friend… but I am not sorry I wrote what I wrote, because that is my truth right? 2020 required so much effort. May 2021 require less… of all of us.
Thank you for your reply… that’s fair. And I’m sorry there are those in your circle that pushed you so far and failed to see it. I think 2021 will be better to us, and if it is not yet, let’s remember that the vastest troubles didn’t really get underway until the Year of the Rat, which we are still in, so the Year of the Ox still has the chance to come in kinder.
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