I never know when it's going to hit me--but today it did, while standing in line at a clothes store. It staggered me so bad that when I returned home I felt so drained I immediately launched into a 3 hour nap, not that I could afford the time, but I had nothing left. I drifted off into deep sleep, where I imagined myself driving up and down 680 and 24, trying in vain to find a particular rock outcrop.
In this case, the cause of my funk was an obese woman trying to purchase $211 in clothes. It's hard to find clothes when you're fat--I should know. I had just spent a half hour flipping through clothes I liked, but which were made for someone just a fraction of me. When you're fat like me there's not much choice; you look first not at the price or at the style, but at the size. I suppose most people first look for a style they like, then try to find a size that fits. But everything is reversed for the obese.
This woman had a lot of clothes. It had probably taken her a long time to find them. But as the cashier rang her up, he politely informed her that her card had been declined.
Ouch. Embarassment. I shifted on my feet and considered finding another register, but there were no others available. I tried to avert my gaze. A few more people came into the line. And then it hit.
I was overwhelmed with empathy for this woman. I considered, for a fleeting moment, paying for her clothes, but I am unsure how the gesture would have been interpreted. I felt myself transported from where I was standing into her, feeling her anger and humiliation. I know on an intellectual level that the brain can easily be stimulated into faux out-of-body experiences, and that these moments I have of extreme empathy are just a manifestation of some deeper psychological complex. I remember though, as a child, how it would feel to look at myself through someone else's eyes and to feel their thoughts and emotions. I suppose that this is one reason why I've always felt so disconnected from myself--sometimes I scarcely recognize my face in a mirror. Nor do I easily recognize the faces of those I know; perhaps this is some minor form of agnosia
Images of the woman flash back to me even now. There was a time when these images would be overwhelming to me, when I would literally crowd out every other thought in my mind thinking about this, over and over. Now I've learned to control this better.
America worships the skinny and the rich. Paris Hilton, then, is the apogee of everything American, and that's why I so frequently mention her. America has no place for the fat or poor. You find whatever clothes you can in the reject pile. America has devolved into the fascist Abercrombie & Fitch ideal--everyone is beautiful, white, skinny, and posed in overexposed black and white photos right out of a Leni Reifenstahl film. Those who don't fit this mold--off to the camps with them. This is what America has become.
Sometimes I wish I could not feel the empathy, that I could somehow block it out. My years of flirtation with conservative views were, I think, just an attempt to block out the feelings of the raging, howling sorrow of the world that crashes uncontrollably at me in every direction all day long. When I was at Berkeley, in order to walk to class I literally had to step over unconscious homeless and ignore beggars. Every day I would pretend that many of the people around me were not people. I had to close my heart to the suffering as a defense. How much easier it would be to see the misery as the fault of the homeless, blame the sick for their sickness; how much easier it is to blame the poor for being poor, even though in the back of my mind I have never forgotten that I was a welfare baby.
I suppose that these thoughts are what lead me to Steinbeck, and Hemingway, and Faulkner, and help me understand how their work defines the inevitable suffering of life. I've been listening to Hemingway on CD in my car this last week, and his raw humanity has touched me. If I were not an atheist I would be a Buddhist, for the Buddha teaches that all life is suffering, and the biggest cause of suffering is the false expectation that you will somehow be immune to the pain.
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