In a recent blog, I mentioned that empathy and intersubjectivity remain works in progress and are never quite completed. Indeed, empathy runs into obstacles when the other person I am interacting with has experience, self-knowledge and a vision of the world which strike me as unfamiliar. I cited cultural differences as a possible obstacle, since what we say through language, what we show in our behaviour, and what we leave unsaid, are the primary ways we communicate with one another.
I can think of three situations where I noticed that empathy and intersubjectivity made little or no difference. These three situations were (1) when another person experienced full-blown psychosis; (2) when a deeply depressed person was recovering from a suicide attempt; and (3) when several different people were wrapped up in personal mythologies to the point of alienating themselves from other people.
(1) I know someone who frequently had psychotic episodes. Witnessing a psychotic episode second-hand is very disturbing. I saw that person turn purple, sob, shout randomly at her hallucinations, run down the street, then run back again, struggling to make sense of her psychosis by creating a new delusion that I was actually her mother and it was all my fault. This happened quite a few times. Having never suffered from hallucinations or delusions myself, I could only form an intuitive picture of what it feels like to experience psychosis, by means of analogy. Psychosis reminds me of a person on fire. At first, I just wanted to put the fire out. This showed me the limits of metaphor. I realized it was better to maintain a safe distance, and avoid getting engulfed in that other person’s psychological crisis.
(2) Then again, I remember visiting a psychiatric patient who had undergone catatonic depression and tried committing suicide. I would visit the patient in the hospital on a regular basis. I pictured his mind as a labyrinth-like building with ladders here and there, and secret doors flinging open, then slamming shut again. That person was completely self-absorbed, almost self-contained. When he reached out to me as if I were his salvation, I had to draw the line, and remind him that he, not I, was suffering from mental illness: I could not accompany him into the dark inner world of his imagining. Empathy is not the same as self-sacrifice.
(3) I can think of a third situation where empathy runs into obstacles: when a man and a woman retreated into a personal mythologies where their experience, self-knowledge and vision of the world were totally unfamiliar to me, where they created heroic projections of themselves in a fluid, alternate landscape peopled by angels, demons, presences and other delusions. They did not know each other, but they both regularly claimed to have heard the voices of God and the Devil speaking to them personally. In another case, I had a student who got so intensely involved in 3D computer games that it became alienating for her: the games effortlessly generated distorted visions of the world, and these distortions were so compelling, satisfying and strangely comforting that it became harder, not easier, for her to interact with others … and to do her homework.
So, empathy and intersubjectivity have their limits. They have to do with a disposition, an attitude of respect for the other person; they do not ensure an outcome. And the idea of intersubjectivity is based on sharing between people, back-and-forth: it is not a form of control, on a one-way street.