Ever since I was a child, I've been told that I'm "too sensitive."
Too fragile, too trusting, too vulnerable to the ever-changing dangers I grew up with: from the monsters under my bed to the monsters at school, to strange men on motorcycles who'd leer and spit on me at the bus stop, to lovers who would gradually suck and suck all the nectar out of me until I was shriveled and rotting inside.
Out of concern and love, my dad warned me that this would happen.
He called it a double-edged sword: a certain kind of empathetic sensitivity I brandished from a young age, one that allowed me to form strong bonds, but also one that could cut me deeply if I wasn't careful enough.
One that could easily pierce through the walls that people formed around their hearts, but also one that left me with bleeding hands if I held on too hard.
"Use it wisely," he said to me.
It wasn't until I was 20-something that I realized: the only reason why he knew to warn me was because he carries that same sword.
I've always envied my dad's ability to impact lives in a deep and meaningful way. He'd befriend anyone from the garbage collector at our apartment to random restaurant owners. They all remember him and speak of him fondly even years after.
To this day, his barber that he's been going to still treats me like a princess whenever I get my hair done because I'm "Joe's daughter."
My dad is a doting father, a loyal son, a committed husband, and a well-loved senior executive.
He's really got everything figured out, and I think a big reason for that is because he's learned how to properly yield the double-edged sword... Which is something I'm still learning how to do.
All my life, I've struggled with a pattern of caring too much, then burning out and not caring at all. I've learned this year that I suffer very easily from "compassion fatigue."
If I'm not careful about where I'm putting my energy, it comes back to bite me in the ass.
It's hard to put into words what it feels like to care too much. All I can say is that some days, I get really. freaking. sad.
The kind of melancholy that seeps in from outside like a dark noxious gas, to the point that I feel like I'm suffocating sometimes.
The kind of heart-piercing sadness you feel when you hear the chilling cry of someone who's just lost their loved one, reverberating through a cold hospital hallway.
The kind of dull ache-y grief you get when your favorite TV or book series comes to an end and suddenly you feel utterly alone again.
It's all that combined and more, and somehow, I just know that the sadness is not coming from me.
[Now this is the part where I might lose a few readers, especially those who immediately break out in hives at the mention of anything "spiritual" or "psychic energy"-related.
If that's you, feel free to skip!]
I can't explain how I know this, but there's a clear distinction between when I feel sad because of something in my life or something within me, versus when I feel sad because of other people's pain.
For example, the sadness I feel when I'm going through a breakup is not the same kind of sadness I feel when I hear about immigrant children being torn away from their parents at the border, or when I listen to a YouTuber describe her experience with having a miscarriage, or when I watch icebergs melting on Our Planet.
The former feels manageable, and the latter feels like a never-ending well, one that doesn't run dry no matter how many tears I shed.
Because the world is full of pain. People and ecosystems are suffering everywhere we turn, not just this year but every year of our existence on this planet.
The magnitude of pain in this world overwhelms me if I think too much about it—which is why I try my best not to.
(Except in this post, and on certain occasions when the veil between me and the rest of the world feels especially thin).
It’s the crux of the human condition, isn’t it? Entire philosophies have been formed around it, Hollywood movies and shows build plots from it, capitalistic vices like binge-drinking and binge-shopping profit off of it.
Unending universal pain, and our manic yet futile race to escape it, is a timeless tale that spans generations.
In fact, two of my favorite books that deal with this topic are written a century apart, yet both tackle themes of suffering and empathy in equally poignant ways.
The Brothers Karamazov, written in 1880 by Fyodor Dostoevsky, proposes that we choose to create communion from this “pointless suffering.” While there are religious messages in this book that I don’t necessarily agree with, I do find the idea of a compassionate community formed out of endless hardship... quite reassuring, actually.
The 2005 hit novel Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro takes a more futuristic approach to existentialism by focusing on the twisted fates of characters living in a dystopian society.
By the end of the novel, readers are left with bittersweet frustration. I know I was, at least.
Why the hell did Kathy and Tommy not rebel against the system, à la Hunger Games?
Why would they acquiesce so meekly to this cruel fate of theirs?
Interestingly enough, it’s mostly Western/American readers that have this question. Show this book or film adaptation to Japanese or Russian audiences and their responses are totally different.
In hyper-individualistic societies like in the U.S., the concept of accepting one’s fate as a cog in the machine is hard to swallow. In other societies, not so much.
But I think the moment I really fell in love with this book was when I realized that we are ALL Kathys and Tommys, regardless of our cultural standing.
In one way or the other, we all passively accept the existence (if not the extent) of suffering in this world. Most of us subscribe to the Japanese philosophy of shoganai (しょうがない) without even realizing it.
While it’s easy to see shoganai as a defeatist attitude, I think there is a lot of merit in understanding that suffering will always be present, whether in your inner or outer world (or both).
The sooner we accept that fact, the less time and energy we’ll spend trying to make sense of “meaningless pain.” It just is.
Accepting that fact doesn’t mean throwing our hands up and saying, “F*** it, what’s the point of even trying?” It’s about redirecting our energy. It’s about pushing for change, even in the smallest increments, even if we won't be around to see those changes take form. The next time you feel defeated by the heaviness of the world's suffering, tell yourself: "Shoganai." Then pick yourself back up and continue fighting.