“What’s wrong with her?” my father might have asked.
“Nothing. She’s just very sad about the dead raccoon,” my mother might have answered on any number of occasions when our 1960 Ford station wagon sped by roadside carnage, and I curled up in the back seat, whimpering, disconsolate. Same reaction on the beach during summer vacations when I’d find dead fish washed up on the shore. Same reaction as when a goldfinch or cardinal slammed into our picture window at home and flopped to the ground inert. I shuddered at each impact and collapsed into a puddle of tears with a hard ball of grief weighing in my belly. Such violent, painful deaths.
I reacted in much the same way to people’s pain and discomfort. My father, a Methodist circuit preacher, used to drag me along on his pastoral calls to shut-ins and parishioners in nursing homes. I would sit quietly by their bedsides as he prayed over Mrs. Miller’s frail frame or Mr. Long’s twisted arthritic hips and legs. Their misery would wash over me, through me.
I thought my father might be right. Something was wrong with me. But I didn’t know what, couldn’t really talk about it, although my mother tried to get to the bottom of those wrenching, tearful scenes.
It wasn’t until I was 14 years old that I learned the nature of my emotional upheavals. By then, the more extreme reactions of my childhood to others’ distress had dissipated to some degree. I still felt ripples of sadness, but they were mere tremors in comparison to my erstwhile earthquakes. Instead, such waves of grief were accompanied by the auras I could see around the sufferers, so I could feel and see in a way their torments.
What was all this? One Friday night in 10th grade, I found my “diagnosis” on Star Trek, Season 3, Episode 12, “The Empath.” Here’s a clip:
“That’s it! That’s it!” I shouted aloud at the TV. So that’s what I was! An empath! There was a name for me—and I wasn’t alone. My Webster’s Collegiate dictionary had an entry. And Merriam-Webster has much the same today: “one who experiences the emotions of others; a person who has empathy for others,” or in my case as one who experiences the emotions of other living things…and mourns the deaths of the Earth’s creatures. Or their near deaths—their coming extinction. Knowing the answer didn’t make the feelings go away but has helped me over the years to better manage life as an empath.
As a young teen, it became abundantly clear that I was not going to grow up to be a doctor, nurse, or social worker where I’d be inviting emotional trauma into my life through my patients’ lives. I also realized at age 14 I was not going to have children. Parenting would drain any emotional reserves I might build up as I matured. I’d be in a loony bin by the time my baby teethed. And then there’d be nothing left for husband or child—or my writing, a craft I began practicing three years before that revelatory Star Trek episode.
After all, one of the techniques for managing my empathic responses is to channel them into poetry, which I’ve continued to do ever since. I’ve so often agonized over the loss or anticipated loss of a species. Voilà! Endangered species poems! Here’s one that appeared in my first book, Midst, that grapples with the coming extinction of the largest eagle on Earth:
Message from a Harpy Eagle
Sole specimen in the United States
of the exotic Harpia harpyja
resides in captivity
in the San Diego Zoo.
Massive native bird
of Amazon canopies,
from behind his gray feathered mask,
he stares at me through wire mesh.
He flexes those wings
into twelve wide feet of fierce glory,
but does not fly away.
Talons he has the size
of my index finger
that push this pen
across this page.
Several years later, in 2013, I encountered a harpy eagle in the wilds during an expedition on the Amazon River, and wrote this poem, later collected in Attaining Canopy: Amazon Poems.
Another Message from a Harpy Eagle
Ten years ago I first encountered him, isolated,
on a manmade perch without female, shackled
out of place and time in the San Diego Zoo.
Today we meet again, again by chance, again
by subtle fate. This time, for this rare second coming,
I am the stranger in his strange green place on Earth.
The barbed wire and iron bars of his chain-links captivity
have dissolved into strangling liana vines, sky-scraping leaves
of cecropia trees, blistering bush, and bristling bromeliads.
Urban bustle of California is supplanted
by the monkey rustle of the Rio Negro in Brazil’s flooded
Igapó forest. He flies; I enter his habitat, on his terms.
Aboard an Amazon canoe, slowly floating, adrift,
I round a bend, glimpse him lift from understory snag
and shriek into full view from the tangled darkness
into the river of sifted light—and back again.
He escapes my invading gaze. He stalks more natural prey.
Rara avis, hooded predator masked, is master of this jungle.
He is not the same one I once met. But he is.
Reason cannot tell me this is not the same bird,
his feathered message the same a decade later.
Though his mate awaits, he pauses on a limb bridging
the waters to speak of taloned mercy
upon me, my kind; H. harpyja,liberated, keens.
I still get into emotional trouble from time to time. Sensory overload happens, as it did this winter. Too many close friends suffering alone through the pandemic. Too many pandemic deaths. The Ukraine war. Ongoing Myanmar genocide. I had a meltdown. I withdrew from the world for a month. I set clearer boundaries to ward off unsolicited demands to come to the rescue—shutting down personal email accounts and moving communications solely to texting/messaging as well as limiting and pre-scheduling phone calls, and curtailing social media activity to a sparse 30 minutes a day. I stemmed the flood of impositions on my time, energy and emotions, leaving more time for what matters: writing. I sought—and found—balance.
While so many of us are being overwhelmed by Covid deaths and sickness as well as our own fatigue in managing our lives during this pandemic era, it’s possible that you may also have empathic responses to the latest dire news. Or maybe you know someone who is an empath and you want to be a good friend instead of another drain on an empath’s life. I found this article particularly concise on living and coping as an empath; maybe you’ll find something here too:
I am grateful I have this “gift” to offer. I know that my empathic nature came to the fore in the last three years of my husband Roger’s life as dementia stole his mind and weakened his body. I was the 24/7 caretaker, watching his decline and coping with its vicissitudes—changing diapers, washing him, dressing him, helping him eat. Day in, day out. Three years. Worn out as I was, I had the emotional fortitude—the empath’s power—to see him through to the end.
Your Eyes Were Once Full of Language
The sadness comes in waves
like first-trimester nausea.
We are pregnant with death.
I am carrying your elegy
in my lyrical heart-womb.
Blood floods its metaphors.
In slowing pulses, the poem
shows love’s final complications:
birthing prematurely your last word.
après Anne Sexton
(First published in Anti-Heroin Chic)
To be an empath is a curse. It is a blessing. Thankfully, most often, the latter. Or as actress Susan Sarandon put it: “When you start to develop your powers of empathy and imagination, the whole world opens up to you.” I hope you care. A lot. Just not too much.
9 thoughts on “I Feel your Pain”
Karla, I’ve cared for your new post, and wrote a paragraph in reply, but needed a password etc. to post it, so gave up. In any case, thank you, and love from Han and Bill
—————————————–From: “Karla Linn Merrifield” To: email@example.com Cc: Sent: Monday March 28 2022 9:39:42AM Subject: [New post] I Feel your Pain
karlapoet posted: ” “What’s wrong with her?” my father might have asked. “Nothing. She’s just very sad about the dead raccoon,” my mother might have answered on any number of occasions when our 1960 Ford station wagon sped by roadside carnage, and I curled up in the back”
Thanks, Bill, for stopping by. Pleases me you took the time to read it. And life goes on, a heartbeat at a time. Love to you both…and spring warmth and joys. Karla
Congratulations on yet another wonderful post.
Your insights about life, about the common cares of life, truly ARE the essence of poetry.
Oh, Michael, you are so dear. Thank you. I just write from my heart as the spirit moves. That it touches a few people, all the better. I’ve been stewing on this post for 2 months. What a relief. 🙂
Thanks for this engaging blogpost, Karla. Being an empath is a blessing and a curse, yes! Especially feeling the weight of war this past month-plus.
John, you probably let a lot more into your soul than I can do any more. Your legacy is in part the formidable advocacy you’ve done over the years for humanity and the planet.
Karla dear friend, we had no idea of your pain. Felt there was something wrong when you retreated from email and social media that time 2 months ago. Thank you for sharing, we love you and our hearts emphasise with you. Sherrill and John
Your poem for Roger is astonishing. So beautiful and painful! Stay well, friend.
Thank you, Wanda, my dear friend. I am! Writing up a storm this later winter/spring! Feels divine! Love, Karla