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“…it was not the disease of leprosy itself that caused so much damage to hands and feet. The disease strangles nerves, kills off feeling, and what you cannot feel you cannot take care of: not the disease but the patient does the damage…

‘Pain, along with its cousin touch, is distributed universally on the body, providing a sort of boundary of self. Even after surgery, [leprosy patients] tended to view their repaired hands and feet as tools or artificial appendages. They lacked the basic instinct of self-protection that pain normally provides.’

Physical pain is often lonely, felt only by one person who must trust that others will believe and emphathize… Empathy is the capacity to feel what you do not literally feel, and Brand taught his young patients a kind of empathy for extremeties that no longer seemed part of themselves. ‘I feel you,’ people say. If pain defines the boundaries of the body, you participate in the social body with those you empathize with, whose pain pains you – and whose joy is also contagious.

Some empathy must be learned and then imagined, by perceiving the suffering of others and translating it into one’s own experience of suffering and thereby suffering a little with them. Empathy can be a story you tell yourself about what it must be like to be that other person; but its lack can also arise from narrative, about why the sufferer deserved it, or why that person or those people have nothing to do with you. Whole societies can be taught to deaden feeling, to disassociate from their marginal and minority members.

Empathy makes you imagine the sensation of torture, of the hunger, of the loss. You make that person into yourself, you inscribe their suffering on your own body or heart or mind, and then you respond to their suffering as though it were your own.

…To injure, to kill, to cause suffering in others, requires first that withdrawal of empathy that would have made such action painful or impossible, and to intetionally cause pain in others requires you to kill yourself off a little in the process.

…You errected a wall between yourself and annihilation or horror and sometimes it then walled you off from life.The wall itself sometimes grew like a disease if left untreated. Those with leprosy lose only physical sensation; it is the rest of us who tend to lose moral, emotional sensation around their suffering. Which is to say that leprosy was for millennia a psychological disorder of whole societies, though it was a bacterial infection of only a minority.

…To feel for someone enlarges the self and then that self shares risks and pains. Perhaps it’s impossible for anyone short of an enlightened being to carry the weight of all suffering, even to recognize and embrace it, but we make ourselves large or small, here or there, in our empathies. I met a Thai Buddhist saint once who for twenty years took on tiny tokens and charms people gave him so that he would carry their suffering. Eventually he wore a cloak of a couple hundred pounds of clanking, chiming griefs at all times, and then it became too heavy or he’d carried it far enough, and he put it down.”

– Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby


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