Saturday, November 19, 2011

Empathy for People and Sympathy for Animals

In Stephen King’s Needful Things, a supernatural shopkeeper named Leland Gaunt sells things to people in exchange for a prank. Hugh Priest is the town alcoholic, and Gaunt sells him a fox-tail but requires him to kill Nettie Cobb’s dog and to make it look like Wilma Jerzyck killed him. Nettie and Wilma are feuding, and Gaunt (for some malevolent purpose) is trying to exacerbate that tension. On page 239, we read Hugh’s initial reaction to what he had done:

“Hugh stood up, his heart thumping heavily. He suddenly felt very bad about what he had done—-almost ill. Maybe she was crazy, maybe not, but she was alone in the world, and he had killed what was probably her only…friend.”

Alcoholics are often stereotyped as very selfish, but Hugh manages to have a sense of empathy for Nettie after doing his dastardly deed.

Empathy for people does not always come easy for me, perhaps because I do not feel that many people like me, and so I have a hard time caring for them. Or perhaps my empathy depends on the situation—-if I have experienced something that someone else has experienced, or if I have a fairly decent relationship with that person, or other factors. I think that it’s important for me to cultivate and to encourage empathy within myself—-whether the person suffering likes me or not, or would like me or not. Hugh did not have a good relationship with Nettie, and he did not even particularly like her. But he could imagine how painful it would be to be alone in the world—-without family—-and that led him to empathize and to sympathize with Nettie, and to hate himself for killing her only friend.

This scene also reminds me of how much I hate for people to kill or to hurt animals. This is probably because I like animals better than I like most people (since I find animals more accepting), but I think it’s also because animals strike me as so innocent, and (in many cases) as creatures simply trying to get by in the world. In the scene in Needful Things, the dog that Hugh kills is so trusting.

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