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How Depression Deepens Empathy

In Ernest Hemingway’s story, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” a young waiter wants to close the café early and go home to bed. He’s fuming that the one remaining patron, a deaf, elderly widower nursing his brandy, won’t leave. An older waiter tells the young man that the patron tried to commit suicide recently. Rather than sympathizing with the old man, the young waiter stays focused on his own frustration and hostility: “I’m sleepy now…He should have killed himself last week.”

Finally the young waiter refuses to serve the patron anymore and tells him the café is closing. He pays his tab and starts to wend his way home, “a very old man walking unsteadily but with dignity.”

The older waiter argues that they should have stayed open for him. The young waiter points out that the old man can drink at home and the older waiter says it’s not the same, that the widower needs the solace of a pleasant, well-lighted place. Of course the old pensioner is lonely, and the clean, luminous place is a metonymic stand-in for being with other people, even in companionable silence.

As the waiters continue talking, we learn that the older one has suffered depression, a likely source of the kinship and concern he feels for the patron. He remarks on his young colleague’s good fortune: “You have youth, confidence and a job…You have everything.” When the young waiter says they’re the same in this regard, the older waiter replies, “No. I have never had confidence and I am not young.”

The older waiter’s world-weary compassion is poignant, even inspiring. “I am one of those who like to stay late at the cafe,” he explains, “with all those who do not want to go to bed. With all those who need a light for the night…Each night I am reluctant to close up because there may be someone who needs the cafe.”

Near the end of the story, we learn how badly the old waiter is suffering himself, as he recites a nihilistic version of the Lord’s Prayer: “Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name…” The story’s final sentences imply that he feels he has nothing to look forward to. He anticipates lying sleepless in bed until dawn, thinking, “It is probably only insomnia. Many must have it.” As lonely and dejected as he is himself, he’s still considering what others like him may be going through.

The story actually belies the dispirited old soup jockey’s feeling that he has nothing to look forward to. We’ve seen how his job gives him chances to offer gestures of consolation or solidarity to people who are in pain.

The deep sadness of this story shouldn’t prevent us from noticing its portrait of incandescent empathy. The old server suffers terribly, but enlivening compassion seesaws with his despair and feeds meaning back into the heart from which it grows. His empathy, born at least in part of his hardships, must be a benison to him as it is to those he helps. Yes, his prayer sags with despairing nihilism. Yet it’s easy to imagine him conducting his life with kindness toward others, especially those who bear the marks of mental anguish he’s so quick to recognize.

Recent research has confirmed what Hemingway portrayed so evocatively in this story—that depression’s dark envoys may leave in their wake treasures to outshine Fort Knox. For example, according to a 2002 study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, while “a depressed person may appear less likely to act altruistically as well as less likely to act in their own behalf, people who are depressed are in fact…more highly prone to an empathic response to the distress of others.”

It’s not that hard to see why this is so. Once you’ve experienced depression’s howling torment or the wild stabs of staggering anxiety, you feel for anyone who’s had to weather similar pain. Our zeitgeist of me-first values might not credit empathy as a desirable trait, and like many virtues, compassion certainly has its downside. It can seem a pointless kind of pain when you’re not in a position to help those suffering souls for whom you feel it.

And yet, and yet…it’s still a godsend. Those who struggle with depression habitually undervalue their own lives, their work, their personal triumphs. But once you’ve helped even one suffering person in a significant way, you’ve brewed up a heady antidote for the bughouse logic that tells you your life has no meaning.

And depression can equip you to help people in ways that other slings and arrows of outrageous fortune can’t. The authors, therapists, friends and relatives who have helped me the most are those whose stripes suggest they’ve been taken down to the blue devil’s whipping post themselves. They’ve tracked the badlands of despair, panned gold out of poisonous streams. Empathic wings sprout from their wounds. Kind wisdom flowers from the killing fields of their affliction.

Psychotherapist and Zen teacher John Tarrant describes it this way:

Empathy is an act of imagination—to participate with another person in her life is to make a connection not possible in the night of despair. We imagine our way out of the dark. But when we are in the dark, any act of will or effort is beyond us. So compassion, this poor, small first piece of the imagined world, like life itself, is born of nothingness and is beyond anything we intend or deserve.

Compassion born of nothingness. Warmth wafting somehow from the chill dead vacuum of despair. Maybe empathy kindles a tiny ember of faith in a bleak dark corner of the old waiter’s heart as he prays, “Give us this nada our daily nada…deliver us from nada.” Maybe—for him as well as for you and for me—affirmation crouches there behind denial, waiting for a whispered invitation, or the subtlest plea for help, only strained, scared eyes entreating. Will you help? Will you be helped? Maybe both at the same time.

Photo by Daniel X. O’Neil

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