Sometimes people cancel plans on me last minute. It happens, and I can’t say that I’ve never done the same to other people. Yet every time someone sends me that text that says “I didn’t get everything done, I have to bail”, I am still convinced that they are sending me a message. It’s a message that says “I didn’t care enough about you to plan ahead. I made the choice to put off my work because I didn’t care whether or not I saw you.”
Now before you all go telling me how paranoid and obnoxious that is, I realize that procrastination is a problem for some people, people get busy, unexpected things pop up. Life happens. But as a compulsive type a planner, organizer, perfectionist, and working ahead-er, no matter how hard I try I can’t entirely understand how someone can accidentally not get something done. I am almost always a few days ahead on anything that needs to get done. I can’t forget about the work that I need to get done, even if I am forcibly trying to make myself relax because it doesn’t need to get done for a while. It’s hard, nearly to the point of impossibility, for me to imagine a life in which your brain doesn’t constantly butt in and remind you of all the things you’re not doing. It’s like trying to imagine a life in which your body forgets to remind you that you need to pee or eat. It’s utterly foreign.
In his essay “What Is It Like To Be A Bat”, Thomas Nagel suggests that we can never even speculate on what it might be like to be something like a bat because the experiences are so different from our own that even if we tried to imagine it we would simply be imagining what it is to be a human being a bat, and if we could imagine any further we’d no longer be human. Nagel suggests that as human beings we have enough of a common lexicon of emotions and senses to imagine the experiences of other humans.
But what about experiences like this, where we have never had a parallel experience, or in which we have a brain that fires differently from the vast majority of humanity? Can anyone out there who doesn’t have an eating disorder ever understand what I mean when I say that not eating just feels morally right? I have absolutely no template for what it’s like to just put something off, and the only reasons or explanations that I can think of involve a conscious choice to change priorities. While intellectually I can imagine other possibilities, there is no emotional resonance because I have never had the emotions or experiences of forgetting a task until the last minute (with the exception of things that I “forgot” because I so deeply don’t want to do them and choose to put them off for a little bit. Never until the day before they’re due. Never ever).
Empathy is a lot harder than we give it credit for. It’s easy enough to imagine ourselves in a given situation (put yourself in their shoes). But people don’t feel things in the same ways. Brains process things differently, we have different paradigms through which to interpret, and sometimes we just straight out care about different things. So where you may look at a lack of planning as being fun, flexible, and spontaneous, I look at it as a sign that you don’t want to see me ever. Beyond these specific and fairly trite examples we have deeper differences based on morality and upbringing, combined with our particular neuroses. It’s easy to suggest that we should be empathetic to those whose values, politics, and beliefs are radically different from our own, but if I can misinterpret and misunderstand the behaviors and motivations of even my closest friends, how much less do I have in common with those who come from a very different background and whose minds have formed utterly differently from my own? It may never be possible for me to fully empathize with those who are strongly religious because I have never had a religious experience in my life and have no template from which to draw those feelings.
It’s easy to assume that all humans have common experiences and emotions from which to draw understanding. In fact it’s often assumed that we do. But there are such a wide variety of ways that human beings can interact with the world that it would be more surprising if we did have parallels for everything someone else is feeling. Instead of empathizing with wildly foreign experiences, I’m going to try to experiment with simply accepting them as how they’re described. I may not understand them, but they are there and they will stay there whether or not I understand them. There’s a kind of wonder to it, just as there is wonder in imagining how a whale or a bat feels.