Ralph Nickleby, though displaying a lack of empathy that will be the end of him, is not wrong. As he goes on to say, people die every day, or lose their homes or become bankrupt. On some level, suffering is commonplace. For Ralph Nickleby and other sociopaths, this means that we can dismiss the pain of others as unimportant. But it also means that this is something we have in common. Common, to Ralph Nickleby, might mean lowly and beneath notice, but the word “common” has the same root as commune and community, and this is where empathy comes in.
Many experiences feel rare to us, because they are rare for us. And because they are rare and uncommon, they are valuable. Falling in love, loss, grief, great happiness; any time we feel something with a great strength of emotion it can feel new, like something nobody else has felt before or will ever feel again. And in a sense this is true. As we are each our own small colossal world — every human or dog or common sparrow — nobody can ever know exactly what we know or feel exactly what we feel. But they can come close to understanding, closer than we imagine, which is why we have language, and why we have art: To remind us of this remarkable fact, of all that we have in common. And because we have these things in common, they are valuable.
What a comfort to recognize some part of your story in a painting or a poem or a film. How beautiful to be moved by a melody in ways you don’t understand, and then to discover that someone long ago and far away, who speaks a language you don’t speak, felt the same way and invented a word for it. How much better and more important to be touched by something you’ve never experienced yourself, and to feel sorrow and joy for people who will see things and remember things you can’t even dream about. It’s our work as humans to empathize. It’s our privilege as artists to empathize, and to provoke empathy in others.
When you create anything at all, chances are you say to yourself, “It’s not important.” But if it’s important to you, and if you create it with honesty, then it’s likely it will be important to someone else, who will be glad to see a part of themselves in it, or to understand a new way that a fellow human can feel. And this is where sharing comes in.
A commons is a shared green space, and in my insomnia thoughts, I imagined Tidings of Magpies as a sort of commons. A green space where we can walk and talk together, and work together on our allotment gardens. Ideas can grow, and we can bind them together with each other’s thoughts and feelings, and make something new and beautiful. The birds will come and sing their persuasive and incomprehensible songs; the bright green grass and the new flowers will insist that we listen, that we look. We will think about cultivating, but in the end, we will let everything run wild. And we will sit in this shared wilderness and share stories of our uncommonly common sorrows and joys.
Very moving and correct in my mind, I’ve gotten to know you a bit through your writing and your comments and this beautifully done magazine, both pictures and words
Thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment!
Well done. And good. The bedrock of a fine essay here…
Thank you! If you ever want to share anything, let me know. What was that novel you recommended decades ago? Ginger Man? Cinnamon Man? Why can’t I remember?!?
Love this. I found it comforting. I too have insomnia. I often solve the worlds problems, and maybe even, sometimes, my own…but mostly I ramble about in my head-darting from one incomplete thought to another- you managed to sound coherent and also inspirational. Great job : )