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The Limited Virtue

By Lakin Starling

May 5, 2016

We’d always hung out in J’s dorm room, but this time was different. I liked J. I thought he liked me, too. I wanted to tell him and for him to tell me.

Our dynamic had never been clear – we were someplace between friends and more. But now we found ourselves in slow dancing in his dorm room with the lights off as N.E.R.D’s “Love Bomb” played in the background. I rested my head on his shoulder. We said nothing as we moved to the beat while we made small circles in the middle of his floor.

I played out multiple scenarios in which we’d reveal our feelings. I wasn’t afraid to tell him. I was 17 and had never been rejected and didn’t understand just how difficult vulnerability could be. J would bring me flowers that he picked on the way to my room. He’d surprised me with mangoes. I’d re-twist his locs, which he’d taught me how to do. We’d spend hours going over the catalogs of Duke Ellington and Amy Winehouse and now we were moving in unison to a song about a love bomb knocking down the walls between people. Surely, this all meant something.

J put the song on repeat. We laid down on his bed, side by side. He put his hand around my body and hugged me close.

“Isn’t crazy how we are exactly what he’s describing?” J said of the words in the song.

Usually, I was the one asking things. I was the one whose questions left guys quiet.

“I like you.” I said.

I said it but felt I didn’t know what I was doing.

“We don’t have to say it out loud,” J said, as hugged me closer. “That ruins it.”

I thought he liked me. But now I was not sure. I thought I knew him, that I was the type of person he liked. I also understood his not wanting to tell me what I wanted to hear. I was empathic. That was the problem.

“Wow what an asshole!” J said about himself after being reminded about the details of the night.

He was taken aback that I even remembered the dance in the dark. He didn’t recall anything about the night except that “Love Bomb” was on repeat. We both remembered that he had smoked some weed while I was in his room.

We laughed at the irony. I was 17 and not yet jaded. I had internalized the elusiveness of a guy who 9 times out of 10 wasn’t invested in the moment because in 2009, he was high all the time. I was okay with us just being friends. Months and years went by and we were, just friends. I didn’t carry or believe in the notion that we would ever be together but he became an immovable figure in my life. Even when he went away, he wouldn’t stay gone.

“It was like an emotional tug of war between us,” he said. “Looking back, if I’d told someone that I liked them and they brushed me off the way that I did, I see how that could manifest into being weary about being honest.”

Aside from the differences in our approach to expressing our emotions, we connected on so many things, which is why it was easy for me to bend in this limbo of being friends who often stepped outside of those boundaries of a platonic relationship.

Empathy is a good thing, or I thought. Its power, I have to learn, comes only in reciprocity – when one person’s understanding of another is appreciated and welcome. I thought I knew J and at that moment I saw that I did not. This would not be the last time this happened to me.

“Empathy is feeling what another feels,” writes Marianna Noble, the author of “Limit of Empathy. ”It is a neural, immediate, and automatic response to another person. The limits are that you can think that you understand the other person when you don’t.”

And I didn’t. Perhaps, I thought, because I was such a good friend to J he would see me as I wanted to be seen – that he would feel that empathy for me. So I did not push. I liked to feel that I could be myself, and so assumed, naively, that J would appreciate this, too. I wanted to be understanding.

I called Katrina Hanson, who does research on empathy at Baylor, and asked her why a virtue like empathy is not always appreciated.

Often, she explained, empathic people try “to fix things or others.” Sometimes, the object of empathy may not recognize when someone is being empathic – perhaps, she said, because they’ve never experienced themselves.

I felt connected to J. But then things hit a wall. I thought I could access his feelings and if I could I get what I wanted. Each time it happened in the years since – each time I undermined a romance — I now saw the same pattern: I will give this person what he needs, and he will appreciate it, as I would, and then he will appreciate me.

“I don’t think it’s rejection,” said Hanson. “I think it’s timing. Connection is what fuels empathy. You have to have a connection in order for it to be received.”

Now, eight years later, I called J and asked him about that night. He remembered the song but not the conversation. I reminded him of what we said, to which he replied, “Wow, what an asshole.”

But he did remember something completely unrelated: his watching my pet turtle, which died in his care. He remembered how upset I was at the turtle’s death but not at him, for somehow letting the turtle die.

So there was a connection between J and me. Friends. Almost, but not quite, an empathic bond.

Lakin is a music and culture journalist in Harlem.

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