What It Means To Be An Empath 

Photo by Natalya Letunova on Unsplash

Photo by Natalya Letunova on Unsplash

This article first appeared on Luna Luna and has been republished with permission. 

In the33rd section of his poem "Song of Myself" Walt Whitman describes — without the actual words — what it means to be an empath. An empath, a transcendentalist, a healer, a teacher, a human being whose life is centered on the care of the emotions of others. Of others

History has taught me that Walt Whitman was a man full of himself who thought he was a prophet. No one mentioned to me that he was a gay man. That he struggled and hurt too. That he self published and pandered in the streets. How can anyone read that poem, that section, and not be in love with this man? Not feel his raw pain and absorb it as one’s own? I stare at his photographs sometimes and I try to find where it is: In his beard, his wrinkles, or his shining eyes. 

Where does it live, Whitman? This thing you call a wound, this love you carry? And why does it live within me too?

My Meyers-Brigg personality is said to be the rarest one. INFJ, or rather my favorite description of it: The Advocate. The Advocate is someone who, for example, knows things without being told. Almost like how I have predicted every pain that ever befell me or others I know. Knowing things is not a gift, not for me. I know other things because people tell me these things too. One of my friends said, "People just like opening up to you. They think they can."

Two weeks ago I wore a lighter wash of denim than usual and red shirt and strangers wouldn’t stop coming to me. Where is room 267? Where is the performing arts center? One man, brave as he was, stopped me as I walked into the library to ask how I was doing and I kept walking.

I can’t have children. I have known for most of my life that this was so. When I was very young I had intense stomach pains and was taken to the hospital where I stayed for days, that was age five. Now I’m nearly twenty-three and have a chronic illness that is the leading cause of infertility in women. All of my friends are married now and having babies of their own, but I never will. At least, I will never have a child from my own body to hold.

I have many children in the most unconventional ways.

In therapy my therapist says, "How can it be that you think you are utterly unlovable and yet you feel as though you are everyone’s mother?" Which is to say I don’t believe myself to be anyone’s mother. What I believe is that some people I know—so many—expect me to care about their wellbeing in every way possible. To make sure they are happy and healthy and understood as well as fed.

In my poetry class one of my classmates told a story about a poem she wrote in another class we had together. She told us how everyone was so hard on her poem and her and how sad it made her. Except for me. She made sure to tell everyone about how I emailed her after class and stood with her in the elevator and made sure she knew I thought she was valued and important. As she tells us the story she lays her head on my left shoulder and without even thinking about it I grab her head with my right hand and cradle her. We are strangers.


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When I was much younger I found a nest of newborn mice in the house. We lived in a farmhouse where the mice flocked when it got cold out. Everyone in our neighborhood knew this to be typical. My mother told me I had to kill them. I didn’t want to. I sat outside in the red clay dirt and held them in my hands. They were pink and grey and could not even see yet. My grandfather passed by and saw what I was doing. I knew he’d tell my mother or worse chastise me before he told her. Instead, he told me to pick up a rock and smash their heads with it. Make it quick he said. As if it ever would be quick, as if I would forget what I was to do. I placed them in the plastic bag and tied it off. If I am to trust my memory correctly I left that tied bag there in the yard. The white and red type of bags that said thank you thank you thank you thank you.

It’s suicidal to be an intuit or an empath. It’s twice as deadly to be both.

I feel first and process second. I see a man I’ve never met limping or locking his knees and I see my own sciatic nerve pain in his legs and I feel for him. Once, I walked into the bathroom as another young woman sat in the corner crying and having a panic attack. I gave her a wet paper towel to wipe her face off and I rubbed her back and asked her to breathe. I don’t know her. Which is to say I think about her always, even now.

Once at a bar a girl named Elisa read my aura for me. I felt self conscious for a moment and she said, "You see that? Your anxiety is yellow, stop it."

So I released the yellow. I associate the color yellow with piss or vomit. Also with the shade of liquid medicine I couldn’t take as child because I would vomit at the sight of it. She waved her hands over me and stared intently into my eyes. I don’t remember what color hers were, but I know that my eyes are brown. Varying shades of brown that look sometimes like amber and sometimes like the bark of trees. Finally she stopped waving and declared my aura to be the color turquoise. Turquoise is a rare shade for a person’s soul. It means you are a healer and a teacher. Here’s what else it means: You are an old soul. You are a natural born leader. You teach, heal, and inspire. Compassionate.

Perhaps my readings of Whitman have entirely nothing to do with him at all and everything to do with me.

Yet, if he is every blade of summer grass, then what of me? What am I? If the choice is mine then I would declare that I am not a type grass at all but rather a ditch lily or a sycamore tree. Instead, I am raw emotion stitched together with blades of grass and I suppose this state of being is exactly what Walt Whitman was talking about to begin with.

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