It's like conjunctional empathy, and it happens to all of us.
I have a new word for you: cluey. Let me explain.
My father once told me a mundane little anecdote from his youth. It involved his father — my late grandfather — and one of the happiest and most loving people I’ve ever known.
One weekend day, my grandfather went to the store and brought a new board game home for the family: Clue.
He excitedly asked my father and his sister (who were 7 and 9 at the time) if they wanted to play. They did. They joined him at the kitchen table as he opened up the game, read the instructions, explained to them how to play, divided up the cards, and put all the pieces where they go.
Just as they were about to start, the doorbell rang. It was the neighbor kids, who said they were on their way outside to play some outdoor game they all used to play. Without a second thought, my dad and aunt jumped up from their seats and left with their friends.
A few hours later, they came back to the house. The game had been put back in the closet.
At the time, my dad didn’t think much of it — pretty normal day in their lives. But later on, he found himself remembering that day, and he always felt bad about it. He pictured his father sitting there at the table, now alone, with all the cards and pieces laid out. He pictured him waiting for a little while before accepting that it wasn’t gonna happen, then collecting all the pieces and cards he had laid out, putting them back in the box, and putting the box back in the closet.
Pretty random story for my dad to tell me, right? The reason he did was because it was part of a conversation where I was trying to articulate a certain thing I suffer from.
I feel incredibly bad for certain people in certain situations — situations in which the person I feel bad for was probably barely affected by what happened.
It’s an odd feeling of intense heartbreaking compassion for people who didn’t actually go through anything especially bad.
When I explained this, my dad said, “I know what you’re talking about,” and offered up the Clue story. Devastating. My grandfather had been excited about playing, and he was being such a good, loving dad, and he ended up let down and disappointed. He sat there all by himself with the game board, and finally, he put all the cards and pieces back in the box because no, the game wasn’t happening anymore because his kids would rather play with their friends than him.
My grandfather fought in World War II. He probably lost friends. He probably shot people. He might have been shot himself, who knows. But the image of him quietly putting all the Clue pieces back in the box? That’s not fucking OK. And now, thanks to my dad sharing this memory, I live every day haunted by this image:
It’s not just my dad doing this to me.
Tell me how I’m supposed to handle this fucking story, where the grandfather made 12 burgers for six grandkids and only one showed up.
Full Clue situation. And the story includes the clueyest picture I’ve ever seen:
As I read the story, I started picturing this nice fucking man buying all the ingredients in the grocery store, in a good mood with anticipation for the night, then coming home and making each of the 12 patties by hand — maybe even adding carefully-thought-out spices into them — toasting the buns and timing everything to be done at just the right time. He even made homemade ice cream. Clue up the dick. It continues, if you imagine what happened at the end of the night. Either he wrapped up eight uneaten burgers, one by one, and put them in the fridge, ensuring that he’s later reminded of the rejection each time he heats one up to eat it, or even worse, he just threw them in the trash.
And then there’s this story of an 89-year-old grandmother, who got dressed nicely and put her paintings up for display at an art showing, and guess what? No one fucking came. Then, according to one of her grandchildren, she packed up her paintings and drove home, feeling “foolish.” You know what that is? It’s cluey as hell. Especially the word foolish, in particular. I really don’t need this in my life.
Movies know all about clueyness and use it to their advantage.
Remember that super cluey old man neighbor in "Home Alone"? Who was so nice and lonely and misunderstood? The writers literally invented him to inflict clueyness on the audience so they could then release the burden of that clueyness at the end by showing him in happy reunion with his family. Cheapest trick in the book.
Clueyness doesn’t only apply to old people. One time, about five years ago, I was in a bad mood and in a rush when I hastily walked out of my apartment building. A FedEx man was standing outside the building with his cart of packages, and he wanted to get in so he could leave the packages on top of the communal mailbox (I assume the package recipient wasn’t home, so he had had no luck being buzzed in). As I walked out, he reached for the door as it closed behind me, but it shut before he could grab it. After the door relocked, he let out a frustrated exhale, and then he turned to me and asked, “Can you please open the door so I can drop these off?” I was already 10 steps away though and late, so I said, “Sorry I can’t right now” and turned back toward where I was going. Before I did, I briefly saw his reaction to my refusal to help. He had the face on of a nice person who the world had been mean to all day. The snapshot of that dejected face he made bothered me more and more throughout the day, and now it’s five years later, and I still think about it.
If someone asks me what my biggest regret is, I have to lie because how weird would it be if I answered, “The FedEx man incident. I’m a monster.”
Clueyness is a strange phenomenon.
My grandfather probably forgot about the Clue incident an hour after it happened. The FedEx man probably forgot about what I did to him five minutes later. I got cluey about a dog the other day, when he was super excited to play and I was busy and nudged him away with my foot, and he looked at me confused and taken aback and then went to the side of the room and laid down. The weight of my heartache in these cases outweighs the actual tragedy like 10,000:1.
But knowing that it’s totally irrational doesn’t make clueyness any less excruciating —something I’m reminded of every time my night is ruined by post-Uber-ride-when-the-friendly-driver-tried-to-start-a-conversation-and-I-wasn’t-in-the-mood-so-I-gave-curt-answers-until-he-finally-got-the-hint-and-then-felt-embarrassed-and-stopped guilt.
I’m just destined for a life of feeling cluey about things. But at least I can take solace in a little headline I came across: