Learning Empathy From Television

Facts don’t change minds. Facts are also quite bad at convincing people that they should care about others. Supposedly, that’s empathy (with a dash of good argumentation), a skill which children first learn in gradual stages until the age of six. But if the state of the union is anything to go by, at least a few Americans have an underdeveloped ability to understand the emotions of others.

When I was four, some kid in a bookstore stole my Veggie Tales puzzle. So I poked him in the eye. I poked him in the eye four times, until he cried. And I looked on curiously as he did, then retrieved my puzzle. My mother, to say the least, was not pleased.

By that point, I was supposed to have theoretically developed at least partial empathy. My mirror neuron system, which lets us learn things like sports, likely helps us to develop empathy as well, so it should’ve kicked in at the pain on the other kid’s face. Children learn empathy by observing (and mirroring) others’ faces and reactions in real life – which triggers mirror neurons. We also may learn empathy by watching the same expressions and emotions in well-made television. It might sound like a particularly devious excuse to spend all day watching Netflix, but I believe it. Because I started learning empathy slowly, and probably a little late, and television was an absolutely necessary part of that process.

It started, as far as I can tell, in February 2011. I am stressed out, puffed up with Prednisone, bright pink, and cannot go outside because in addition to being on a cocktail of light sensitivity-inducing drugs, I am also allergic to the sun. I’m a sixteen-year-old on vacation in Hawai’i, and my body is folding in on itself, and I spent the last week vomiting, so I do not go outside. Instead, I watch three seasons of Doctor Who in about a week.

Grumbling about having to watch boring old Christopher Eccleston before getting to David Tennant, I start with the first season. And the instant the Doctor takes Rose’s hand and says, “I can feel it. The turn of the earth,” I’m entranced. There is something about watching the world end. About a normal, boring girl just two years older than me caring enough about other worlds to save them. About an alien whose best, ideal day is just a day where everybody lives. (There is, OK, also something about the semi-repressed, dimension-spanning love story. And also something deeply buried about aspirations and becoming a bisexual pirate captain.)

And the way Rose cares about people. Strangers. Stretched-out bags of skin, huge dying faces. The way people love her for it. In Season 2, they find human clones used as lab rats for a cat-run alien hospital, when said skin-creature Lady Cassandra inhabits Rose’s body–and the Doctor knows because Rose would care that people were hurting. Instead, she laughed. Watching that, I am struck: In the same scenario, would anyone notice my absence? I am not kind enough; I do not care enough.

Dunkirk is concerned with how war is experienced, not how it is told.

I stay up late, watching under the covers with volume low, squished into a hotel room with my sisters. I start dreaming, silly enough, of going into the Peace Corps or becoming an army doctor–anything that’ll let me travel the world and help people. I get excited about the world. I want to be kinder.

But, of course, like the self-centered dreams of becoming a traveling savior, I fly home, I catch up to the end of Season 5, reenter the boring, horrid bustle of real life.

I am not a 1000-year-old alien; I have not swallowed a time vortex.

So I forget everything except that instinct to be kind.

Which ends up feeling a little oppositional to daily life.

When I was in high school, the “cool teen fad” of the period was post-emo apathy-cynicism.This was pre “radical empathy,” post the housing crash (which probably stressed us out vicariously through adults). Everyone bathed in doom and gloom, Christopher Nolan-style remakes with gray color palettes and a crushing sense of meaninglessness.

(I’m pretty sure the grimdark bull was a broader trend not specific to high schoolers at the time, but it did feel uniquely overpowering and influential to high school me.)

So I–and many of the people around me–cultivated our callousness quite carefully from probably age 13 onwards. It didn’t feel entirely unjustified, when we looked at the world.

And I credit watching Doctor Who, then later Buffy the Vampire Slayer, at just the right time, in just the right order, with changing that.

When I started watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer is not clear to me. A Facebook search reveals that I made a series of obsessive-looking posts about Buffy to friends’ walls at odd hours starting in May 2011. I recall taking the SAT around the same time Buffy did, so it was certainly  after Doctor Who, but before the end of that year.

Anyway. When Buffy is 16, she dies. When I am 17, I watch her die. And I think: She’s younger than me.

Dunkirk is concerned with how war is experienced, not how it is told. (2)

When Buffy is 16, she dies. When I am 17, I watch her die. (1)I don’t know what it was about realizing that. I have watched many characters younger than me die on television–characters that just like Buffy, I related to. But none followed me the same way.

There are a lot of moments in Buffy that make you think, “Well, fuck this, fuck everybody. The world is a dung heap.” Those moments hurt because through the metaphors, they resonate. There are also a lot of moments that make you think, That’s me. And they’re everybody’s moments–the ones when, over and over, Buffy realizes she’s trapped for life; when Faith looks at herself in the mirror and hates who she is; when Xander lives his whole life jealous; when Willow tries to control, then kill, the people she loves; when Giles kills the Big Bad to keep anyone else from having to lose themselves with that choice.

And there are moments that make you want to give up. In Buffy’s early days, before her friends and lovers turning against her becomes old hat, before the first person she loves really, inescapably dies, and before she takes the SAT, she kills an old friend. Standing over his grave, this conversation between Buffy and Giles, her mentor, has come to sum up the show, for many fans:

Buffy: Does it ever get easy?

Giles: You mean life?

Buffy: Yeah. Does it get easy?

Giles: What do you want me to say?

Buffy: Lie to me.

Giles: Yes, it’s terribly simple. The good guys are always stalwart and true, the bad guys are easily distinguished by their pointy horns or black hats, and, uh, we always defeat them and save the day. No one ever dies, and everybody lives happily ever after.

Buffy: Liar.

And they walk off.

Makes all the optimism in Doctor Who seem a little naive.

I’m not sure how, in a show so filled with stark, depressing (albeit metaphorical) realities, my brain–and apparently dozens of other people’s brains–translated it all to “man, maybe I should get more engaged in life.” The spiritual atheism–the drive to do good because in a world that sucks, making someone’s day is the only thing we’ve got–so clear in Angel is just fledgling and unformed in Buffy.

And that spiritual atheism brings it all together: Sure, keep Doctor Who’s optimism of hopping galaxies and loving everybody and caring when things are bad. But you need a little bit of Buffy’s realism, too, to bring that into the real world.

It could’ve just been the good writing. First quality shows after years of soulless procedurals. Or those first moments relating to network-censored queer characters without having the words “gay” and “homosexual sin” and “the writers are just trying to get attention” butting their heads in. Seeing people at least a little like me. Seeing people I could love.

When Buffy is 16, she dies. When I am 17, I watch her die. (2)

But I think there’s more to it—the unique alchemy of watching just the right shows at just the right time in just the right order, probably also while getting pummeled with hormones, and watching all these characters who I loved and who loved each other, gave me the one-two punch of totally different sorts of empathy. Doctor Who‘s early seasons are almost appallingly idealistic. They teach an empathy that’s bursting with optimism, where super ordinary people are capable of amazing things. It’s easy to be empathetic in a world like that, to get swept away in dreams of being a better person. And then Buffy slams you with a picture of the world much more like it actually is—where people you should be able to trust are demons and your friends try to kill you. Where being good is hard.

There’s something necessary about starting with optimism before you face reality. Empathy requires vulnerability, honesty; that’s easier in a good world than a real one. And there was something necessary, to me, to see it simulated by the only people I found it easy to care for (i.e., fictional ones) before I could bring it into my real life. Experiencing these empathies so closely together kicked off a continuing and likely lifelong attempt to find the empathy–and plain old kindness–that I’d spent so many years shunning.

Maybe Anya put it best, with her demon insight in the final days of Sunnydale: “When it’s something that really matters, [humans] fight. I mean, they’re lame morons for fighting, but they do! They never… they never quit. So I guess I’ll keep fighting too.” •





Katelyn Mae Petrin recently escaped a cockroach-ridden apartment next to the liminal space of a McDonald’s drive-thru to renovate a ’60s fixer-upper on a busy street in St. Louis, Missouri. Her writing has appeared publications around the city, most recently St. Louis Magazine, for which she edits and writes full-time. In her free time, she bakes, plays roller derby, programs, games, and rides motorcycles. She’s probably secretly space goo. 

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