Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Empath

There's a character in the book The Voyage of the Jerle Shannara: Ilse Witch who is both a seer and an empath.

An empath is someone who can feel other people's pain.

    She took a step forward. "An empath can give you peace you can find in no other way. Give me your hand."

    He did so without thinking, and she took it in her own. Her hands were soft and warm, and they barely enclosed his. She ran her fingers slowly over his palm and closed her eyes. "You are in such pain, Walker," she said. A tingling began that turned slowly to sleepy calm, then to a sudden, soaring euphoria. "You feel yourself beset on all sides, your chances slipping away from you, your burden almost too much to bear. You hate yourself for what you are because you believe it is wrong for you to be so. You conceal truths that will affect the lives of those who- "

    He jerked his hand free and stepped back, shocked at how easily she had penetrated his heart. Her eyes opened and lit on him anew. "I could free you of so much of your pain if you would let me," she whispered.

    "No," he replied. He felt himself naked and revealed in a way he didn't care for. "The pain is a reminder of who I am."

    ~pages 212-213
And then later-

    She bent to the Druid soundlessly. Like the shadow she so often seemed, she hovered over him, her hands placed carefully on the sides of his face, her slender form draped across his own.


    The strange dance between Druid and seer went on for a long time, a give and take of sudden motion and harsh response. She's taking the poison with its sickness and pain into herself, Bek realized at one point, watching her body knot and her face twist. She's absorbing what's killing him into herself. But won't it then kill her? How much stronger can she be than the Druid, this tiny frail creature? He felt helpless and frustrated watching her work. But he could do nothing.

    Then she collapsed to the floor so suddenly that both Bek and the Healer sprang to their feet to go to her.

She does die. She gives up her life so the Druid can live.

That is the romanticized portrait of the empath. Most of you know the empath from a work that is more familiar to you and that is One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. McMurphy is the absolute and total empath. He is, perhaps, the epitome of the empath. McMurphy doesn't need to stay with the patients in the mental hospital. He doesn't need to draw Chief Broom out of his shell. He gets cagey for a while, plays the game, but then the need of the other patients forces him to fight against the Nurse, to put his own life on the line, to fight a battle that he doesn't need to fight for himself but that he needs to fight for them. Because he feels their pain. Because they can't win against Big Nurse but he can- and when he does, he can free them.
    "No, you're right. That's not what drove you crazy. I wasn't giving my reason as the sole reason. Though I used to think one time, a few years ago, my turtleneck years, that society's chastising was the sole force that drove one along the road to crazy, but you've caused me to re-appraise my theory. There's something else that drives people, strong people like you, my friend, down that road.

    "Yeah? Not that I'm admitting that I'm down that road, but what is that something else?"

    "It is us." He swept his hand about him in a soft white circle and repeated, "Us." (258)
McMurphy "goes crazy," as it were, for their sake. He brings in the prostitutes, the liquor and the alcohol for their sake- the fishing expedition is for their sake- everything is for their sake.

And finally:

    We couldn't stop him because we were the ones making him do it. It wasn't the nurse that was forcing him, it was our need that was making him push himself slowly up from sitting, his big hands driving down on the leather chair arms, pushing him up, rising and standing like one of those moving picture zombies, obeying orders beamed at him from forty masters. It was us that had been making him go on for weeks, keeping him standing long after his feet and legs had given out, weeks of making him wink and grin and laugh and go on with his act long after his humor had been parched dry between two electrodes. (267)
McMurphy's not fighting the Big Nurse for himself. He's doing it for the others, he's leading a rebellion on their behalf, because they can't do it without him, they're too scared; they're put on guilt trips by the nurse, the same one who blames him for Cheswick's and Billy's deaths.

There are people in this world who are strong- who are able to be strong because of their parents, their upbringing and their community- or because of their personality. And they choose to dedicate that strength to those who don't have the opportunities they have, who don't have the ability to do the things they do, who can't fight the battles they fight. They dedicate their passion and their questions and their desire to the people who are unable to ask these questions.

They don't do this for themselves. They're the ones, you see, who have the most to lose, the ones that Big Nurse can tear down and ruin. Sometimes they give up, they give in; they get cagey for a while. Play the game, scrub the toilets. But after a while they see the need of those around them- people who are begging them, with their eyes and with their subjugated, obedient manner- and they come back. And they dedicate themselves to fight the hardest battle they'll ever fight, not for themselves, because in the winning they are going to die, but for the others who have the chance but who are too scared. The ones who, as Harding explains, think that they are rabbits.

McMurphy has the power, as Chief Broom says, to build men up and make them strong with his words. Just his words! And if his words alone can do so much, imagine his actions- that last fatal lunge at Big Nurse, tearing her gown open and trying to choke her to death. He does this for the others, not for himself- he does this to free them.

But he has no choice, really. Because he's attuned to their pain, to their eyes, to the way that Big Nurse tears them down and throws them on the ground and walks all over them. He sees how she beats them down and he knows that he has the power to stop it. The only problem is one of sacrifice- how much he will lose in going after her, in fighting for them.

And that is where the voluntary choice comes in. McMurphy could have left, you see. He had every opportunity to leave. But he stayed. He fought and he died but he won because the rest of them checked themselves out AMA and Chief Broom ran away.

There are people, and you may not know them, but they have been or are in the same position as McMurphy. These are people whom others rely upon; people look up to them with their bewildered, painstricken, questioning eyes and beg for them to help. McMurphy, you see, seems strong. He's the one who is able to swagger and laugh and thrust his hand through a pane of glass just to fight Big Nurse. He gathers all the men around him and sits in front of a TV watching a blank screen. He entertains everyone. He's amusing.

What you may not know is that McMurphy is not as strong as he seems, that every day he makes his choice again, every day he determines that he will fight this battle that will cost him dearly- and he will do it for them, because he can't stand to see the look in their eyes.

It would be a hell of a lot easier for McMurphy if he just didn't feel, if he just didn't care. If he'd get cagey or walk when he had the chance or swing on out of there with Candy the night after the party in the mental health facility.

But here's the thing: McMurphy does care. And once he chooses, he's committed; he's the wolf among the rabbits and he's going to do his damndest to free them all. He's the strong amongst the weak, the innocent amongst the guilty, the rebel amongst the obedient. He's fighting the Combine and they'll break him eventually- but not before he wins.

Never before he wins.

1 comment:

Ezzie said...

Good post. Real life is not the same, though it has many similarities...