empathy

Coby and I were sitting in a back booth at Good Bites. We’d finished lunch, the dishes had been cleared, and we were having a coffee before heading over to Safari for a few games of pool.


"Jane told me, yesterday, that I lack empathy," he said.


“What gave her call to say that?” I asked.


"We’d just come back from visiting our friend, Alex, in the hospital. He’d been in a car accident. His car was a total write-off. Along with two broken legs—his right one, in 3 different places—he had a shattered elbow, six broken ribs, a broken nose, and a fractured skull.


There he was on the hospital bed, all bound up in bandages like a mummy, tubes sticking out everywhere, with his two broken legs hoisted on pulleys—one sorry sight, to be sure.


“First thing I said to him was, ‘Alex, you don’t seem your usual spunky self. What’s up?’ He smiled, I think. Then I told him that white didn’t become him, that his greenish pallor would be best highlighted by a gentle shade of rose or violet. And I told him I’d checked out his car and that he’d be pleased to know it was no longer too big for his garage. And I asked, if he didn’t make it, could I have his golf clubs. I just spouted a whole lot of nonsense like that, trying to keep things as light-hearted as possible. When our 15 minutes were up and, just before we left, I asked if I could sign his head. I think he smiled, though, with all those tubes and bandages, I can’t say for sure."


I was laughing.


"Jane appears to have had a strong case,” I said. “What was your defence?"


"I thanked her. I said she hadn’t brought up my remarkable lack of empathy for quite some time, now, and that I’d begun to feel she was taking it for granted."


"And she laughed?"


"And she laughed."


"I take it Jane is a more empathetic person than yourself."


"Yes, though probably less so, now, than she was. I think I’ve persuaded her of its flaws.


“What sense would it have made, I said, to try and feel what Alex was feeling? When are two miserable people ever preferable to one? How would both of us feeling that miserable have benefitted either one of us? Did it not make more sense, I said, that he do the empathizing?


“She agreed I had a point but thought I may have gone a bit overboard with all my joking around. And she was probably right. I can be a little manic in situations like that."


"Remember Jackie?” I said. “She’s back in Canada, now, and we got together for a couple of drinks, recently, at the Rose and Crown. She’s hardly changed at all—still looking great, still as much fun as ever.


“You’ve reminded me, just now, of what she said when I told her I’d never known anyone as joyful as she was nor as lacking in empathy. She said I was mistaken, that she wasn’t lacking in empathy, just smarter about it than most—she only empathized with the more fortunate, which, she said, might well account for her joyfulness—a good part of it, anyway.


“She said that, when her time is nearly up, as the lights are dimming, the last thing she’ll want will be empathy or sympathy or any of that. She’ll be calling out to send in the clowns.”


“ ‘And in we’ll come,’ I said. ‘I’ll be wearing a silly hat for the occasion.’ ”


"Did she laugh?"


“She told me I was an optimist.”