As I sat outside a sun-soaked café overlooking the French Riviera this past summer, I couldn't help but tune into the sounds of two young Americans sitting behind me, engaged in a heated argument. "Your mood swings are unbearable!" the man said through clenched teeth. "I'm sorry you can't handle how deeply I feel things!" huffed the woman in reply. As their seemingly circular, accusatory exchange continued, I slowly earmarked the page of the book I had been reading and allowed this woman's statement to sink in. Being known as a sensitive individual is something that has been relentlessly mocked in our culture, whether in entertainment media or as a part of cultural norms. Exclamations like "Don't be such a cry-baby!" and "You're a drama queen!", I have found, are statements whose sole purposes are to force others to bury feelings of discomfort, pain, hurt, offense, or even joy from being expressed.
If I fell and scraped my knee growing up or felt like I was about to crack under the pressures of school, my mom would always wrap me in a big hug and say, "The only way out of this feeling is through it". A sometimes nearly-impossible pill to swallow, this piece of advice carried me through every joyful and difficult time I endured as I grew up, yet it wasn't until I was a sophomore in high school that I came to find that my mood, and, in turn, my physical well-being, were being affected by the petty dramas of others. Although I myself was not directly involved in any of the situations, I could not understand why when my friends or acquaintances were sad or suffering, I, too, would find myself getting easily upset, frustrated, or saddened by things that usually would not bother me.
Why was I like this? Did I have something wrong with me? A mood disorder?
The tornado of thoughts and questions inside my head evolved into extensive, nightly Google searches, and after a few days, I came to find that I am what is called an empath. More simply defined as "emotional sponges", empaths are beings with the ability to somewhat absorb the energies or emotions of others. Men and women, alike, online that also identify as empaths stated that this gift is both one of the greatest blessings and curses an individual can bear in this modern age.
Since coming to realize this, I have felt the heaviness of my own heart when my best friends have gone through break-ups; I have carried my mom's stress when she's had a bad day at work; I have mourned for both myself and others at the loss of a family member; and I have passed bitter-looking strangers on the street and felt their frustrations wholeheartedly. Pulling myself away from the grasp of such immense heaviness is something I've had to teach myself and practice over time, but as I sat listening to that American couple in France, I realized that these beautiful and deep experiences were not singular to me and that it is something a specific community of individuals alone can actually understand.
So why try and be happy if feeling the suffering of others is imminent and out of an empath's control? For one reason: the immeasurable and insurmountable joy that is also available in every place where there is pain. The smile of a stranger on the street allows beams of light and love to course through my veins; the small, everyday accomplishments of a sibling bring tears of joy to my eyes; and overwhelming displays of unity, kindness, acceptance, and peace enable a euphoric feeling to warm my heart and soul.
In today's world, we can no longer be afraid or ashamed of feeling/owning our feelings. As much as things like technology or social media may connect us, hiding behind a screen or an image only impedes us from really connecting with others and creating the safe space for them to outwardly express any positive or negative emotions they may be feeling. Like with most everything in life, it comes down to perspective. I could ruminate on all of the things wrong with the world that I feel too helpless to change or accept, or instead I could wake up each day, take a deep breath, and remind myself that light can be always be found, even in the darkest of places, and that feeling is, in fact, man's greatest strength.