Die By the Pen: Empathy Part 3 Might Just Save the World

In Die By the Pen, Jared Gniewek discusses what feeds his fires as an author of comics,  fiction and radio dramas.


This week should bring my musings to a close on the subject of empathy. I’m sure I’ll return to it at a later date as my conviction remains that it is our brightest blade as writers and as human beings. An elderly bong smoker in the Haight once said to me that she believed the greatest enemy to the modern world was the lack of imagination folks have nowadays. The use of our imaginations enables us as writers to go into perspectives we can’t accept and gives us a basis for attempting to understand the motives of those we disagree with. It is the basis for empathy.

I had never thought about it but perhaps one of the reasons that our culture gets so galvanized is this dearth. Using our mental facilities to “walk in another’s shoes” has fallen out of fashion. I guess we fear presumption and pretension more than we fear emotional isolation. We are more willing to accept that we can never truly know anyone than face the possibility that we are all more alike than is comfortable for us.

We can’t conceive of solutions to huge problems so we reject any attempt at resolving these problems. We hide behind words and ideas instead of using them to reach out.

To stand against the darkness we must sharpen our blades and strike out from a thousand perspectives, granting voices to the voiceless and souls to the monsters. We have a responsibility to go beyond form and structure and into the miasma of the mass consciousness to plumb whatever truths we can from the whole of human experience.

The dredging of this riverbed begins with empathy.

And empathy begins with clothing.

One of the times I have ever felt closest to a stranger was an average day at the gas station in mid-February of one of those years I worked as a sales associate. A woman was pumping gas in the upstate chill that would whip across the western part of New York like a frenzied goblin. She wasn’t wearing socks. I could see her exposed ankles in the inch or two of snow with the traffic lights on the corner bouncing in the breeze.

As I watched her in the cold my ankles became electrically numb. I was inside, warm and toasty, behind the counter with a space heater blowing dry air across my feet and legs. I watched her finish pumping and walk briskly across the macadam to the front door. My ankles were buzzing as she slapped down her money and left the station without saying a word to me.

Since that day I’ve made a conscious effort to try to understand clothing (or in this case lack thereof). What does it feel like to wear certain things? How do certain fabrics or colors trail behind the eye? What impression do people believe they are making through the choices they make in attire? How can anyone leave the house in that?

The next time you find yourself people watching (you should be doing a lot of this – they are your subjects after all) make a note of how the clothing feels on someone else’s back. Does that sweater look itchy? Does it look as though it might chafe the skin? Are their sleeves rolled up like our President’s or do they keep the cuff buttoned even in the hottest weather? Ties or tee shirts? What army is their uniform from?

If you are very lucky, you might have a moment like mine where you feel absolute clarity of connection. You may not know where the mind is or how to change a tire but you will know with utter conviction (because you feel it yourself) how stiff that dude’s collar is. It will creep around your neck like a snake and it will coil and uncoil with tight rapture as you think to yourself that it is August and maybe it’s time to unbutton at least the top button.

Jared Gniewek has worked in the music industry as a back line technician, performer, and promoter. He has also been a freelance writer whose work can be seen in the recent re-launch of Tales from the Crypt and heard on The Dark Sense, an audio anthology of the macabre  — http://www.earstage.com/darksense.htm.

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