The birth of empathy

After having run away I spent ten months working at a McDonald’s on Finchley Road, London. And then went off to India for a few months, avoiding my first full London winter. This was just after the Bhopal disaster and Indira Ghandi’s assassination and travel visas had just become available again, and India was in a strange mood.

Global travel wasn’t as widespread at the time, but the hippies had beaten a trail through the country and back then in 1984 they were still in evidence. We stayed in cheap hotels and ate one thali a day, which meant that my life savings of 250 pounds or so lasted for many months.

I lost a lot of weight, from that frugality but also the local protozoa, ending up at a fragile 106 lbs draped over my 5’9″ frame. I was so skinny it hurt to sit down. At night I would be tormented by vivid dreams of my family and the home I had run away from. It was my first Christmas abroad and I guess I was still getting used to being all on my own in a large and indifferent world. I sent my family one postcard, which must have scared them just a little. Not only knowing that I had run away, but that I was in India, with all its perceived dangers – drugs, Bhagwan, disease.

From Bombay to Goa by ferry, along the coast, to Mysore, Trivandrum, Cochin, Ooty, Kanyakumari, Pondicherry, Tiruchirapallii, Madras, Bangalore and back to Bombay(the old names were still used back then).

I never took any pictures, being too poor to own a camera. Recently I have been going through other people’s pictures from the same places and times, to evoke more memories than I managed to retain. India, before it got run over by global corporations, smelling of diesel, wafts of music from everywhere, the sound of human voices.

I wasn’t bothered by the desperate poverty all around me, the begging children, the cripples, the desperate mothers, the people sleeping on the streets, the seemingly endless slums. When I was 18 I was almost incapable of empathy. I did not really know how to put myself into someone else’s place and to feel their despair or pain. I had never really learned in my many years of reading books. Feelings were something I had only read about.

I went on to study psychology and philosophy, and to choose a career which is built on grasping how others feel. This is surely not accidental. I was genuinely curious, from an outsider’s perspective about how emotions were built.

In college a friend had lost both parents in fairly short succession in the most miserable circumstances. He spent hours sitting with me, talking about it. He said “with you I worry less about sharing all this, because I know you can carry this and not break” and that was very true.

I did fall in love and marry, but it was only when I had a child that my capacity for empathy suddenly broke through, to a point where it became almost painful. I can no longer listen to babies cry, watch sad movies, read books about the Holocaust. It all just destroys me.

I’ve recently discovered a genetic peculiarity:

My genetic profiles states: “You have a SNP in the oxytocin receptor (rs53576) which may make you less empathetic than most people. When under stress you may have more difficulty recognizing the emotional state of others which impacts loneliness, parenting, and socializing skills… people with the (G;G) genotype were better able to discern the emotional state of others than those who carried the A-allele (which is what I have).”
Not the whole story, but interesting.

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