Empathy Ocean

In the past I have written about empathy; I’ve suggested that with some people – those with varying degrees of mental health struggles – their empathy siren can be louder than most.

A quote I always think of in these empathetic moments is by Jim Carrey, spoken after his partner lost her battle:

For the most sensitive among us, the noise can be too much.

I want to tell you about a scene from the Christmas and early-January period in 2018, in which I felt that sensor more receptive than it had been in a long time.

Often, even in times of perceived relaxation and contentment, I am fighting the persistent force that returns just as it senses I am feeling at ease. I can feel and hear my mind checking, “Right, so we are at the beach, the sun is shining, I am with my beautiful, laughing son, my wife is in her favourite place… get ready Terry.”

Within seconds I am internally in an anxiety tornado again that reminds me I will/am feeling crap already or that I should not enjoy this high too much as it will crash spectacularly and quickly. The anticipation is strong in this one.

Knowing that thought is already sitting in my mind makes it all too apparent it is near impossible at times to switch off. But I deal with it; it is 30 years in the making so it is familiar, and friends and family now accept and understand (I think) but it does take some almighty mental energy to temper it down. It is largely easier to retreat at this stage and ride it out alone.

But despite all of the above, the ocean can make it better. It will never “cure” it but it can make it better. And where else better to live to take it in? Just do not ask me to sunbake and rest for more than five minutes as I will be up digging sandcastles to keep occupied.

It seems our little family are not the only ones to seek out the ocean or coastline to attempt to find a slice of internal peace. Just a couple of days after Christmas I watched my son squeal with excitement, pure delight, at splashing in the ocean and the ocean pool at Curl Curl.

As I watched, out of the corner of my eye a man in his late forties linked arms with his teenage son and they walked into the water. The boy made noises to express his excitement and then I noticed he was severely disabled.

Many people ignore the scene and are respectful, they are not sure how to act or what to say. I have zero idea of how mentally, let alone physically, it would be to be a parent or carer in that scenario.

I always do my best to smile should we make eye contact in such a scenario. Although we did not catch eyes this time, the world stopped for a few minutes and I felt immense pain, guilt and discomfort. The tightening of the chest; holding my breath. That intense empathy running through my system.

I watched from a distance as the father took him across the waist-high water and they sat holding hands on the sea wall.

I imagined what went through the father’s mind. Was he depressed? Had it caused any mental illness in the family? For the mother? How did he cope?

Later I told my wife what I saw and had to take a deep breath to stop myself tearing up. I expressed how lucky we are; how the word lucky does not even come into it. I did my usual trick, and imagined what their life would be like and what went through the father’s mind. Was he depressed? Had it caused any mental illness in the family? For the mother? How did he cope?

I could not get it out of my head. And when we went to the same beach a few days later, the exact same father and son were there. Again I felt it. But this time I put myself in the father’s shoes. THIS was his beauty. Perhaps he felt as lucky as I did, that he had this relationship with his son.

It reminded me of Russ Harris’ descriptions of his feelings when finding out his son was autistic, and later the guilt as he realised what was the real beauty.

I felt embarrassed, also guilty, that I felt sorry for them – even though I could not stop it, let alone control it.

To look at these scenarios, or any, through the innately (instinctively at least) negative glasses is misleading. Just the other day I had to explain to someone at work I may “get shit done” but I am a natural pessimist; it’s in my makeup. Whether that is linked to my own history and struggles I cannot say for certain scientifically it is.

But importantly, it’s not always a negative, as I see the things that can be fixed and work my way up from that low point to make it better. For others it is neutral; it is what it is, black and white. Or the polar opposite to me; the first reaction is pure positivity and euphoria and then it can be a downward slope of acceptance.

Regardless of what it truly felt like, I felt something. One of the most moving things I have seen.

If anything, it may not have been the picture-perfect, model-esque, Instagram-style moment at the beach. But I still think about it regularly. This was real. This was truly beautiful. And maybe that’s why it hit me so hard.

A version of this article was previously published on the Mr Perfect website, and has been republished with permission.


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