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Can I be Objective and Have Empathy after my Brain Injury?

Cheryl Green

Brain Injury Blog by Cheryl Green

October 2, 2013

Can I be objective and empathetic?


One thing that has confused me since my Traumatic Brain Injury is empathy. I want everyone to have it and forgive me when I’m rude, forgetful, and overwhelmed. More than anything, I wish I had it for others. I’m sure I used to have a whole lot more of it.

I love spending time with my peers. But over and over, when someone tells me something difficult I have these two uncomfortable reactions: 1.) I think “Hurry up so I can tell you something terrible that happened to me, ” or 2.) I laugh. Even as I have heard someone’s beloved family member or companion animal has died, I start to laugh and think about how bored I am and what’s for lunch. What’s worse? If a character on TV I like dies, I sob and scream at the loss.

Now and again, though, I get a taste of that old familiar tug of the heart strings. When my friend told me about the driver high on meth who hit him and left him with a near-fatal severe TBI, I got tears in my eyes. My throat closed up. I looked at my friend in a new light and had a swelling sense of curiosity about him. The feeling passed a minute later. Dang it. Where did it go?

Being objective

Now, I’m really nervous because I am creating and co-directing a feature length documentary film on artists with brain injury called “Who Am I To Stop It.” Having to organize and control that much is difficult and confusing. I have temper tantrums on set. I forget to tell the person I’m coming to film that I’m coming. But I love it, and the work is making me step up my game. For a while, I thought all the organization and leadership was going to be the hard part. Well, it is. And there’s another part: being objective and empathetic at the same time.

It’s hard to admit this, but sometimes when I’m filming for the documentary and someone says something horrible, I get too excited. I think “Yes! I’m so glad the camera was on!” What documentary filmmaker wouldn’t be excited for capturing a wonderful, deep story? I get so caught up in having a great film, that I don’t even recognize the humanity of the person saying the horrible thing.

Or if I do get choked up on set, I tell myself to be more objective. It’s hard because most of the people I’m filming are already friends whom I love and am interested in. When they say something interesting on set, I have to just nod. That’s a good thing. But it scares me how easily I can brush off terrible, painful things they say when the camera’s rolling. I sometimes don’t ask follow-up questions because I don’t comprehend how important something was that someone said. Or, when the cameras stop, I go on and on with them in too much detail about what they said, returning to friend mode and taking up my film crew’s time.

What if I can’t stop it?

What if, when the film ends next year, I still hang out with these people and laugh and say “Oh, I wish I had recorded that!” instead of “How can I support you in your pain right now?”

I am not empty of feeling, compassion, or empathy. It’s just that those things are not always there when I want or expect them to be anymore. Making a documentary might be good for someone who can listen to a gut-wrenching story without getting emotionally involved. But is it the best thing for someone who doesn’t have a firm grip on empathy and objectivity? I guess that, too, will become part of the story in some way.