Am I anybody’s keeper?

Is it possible to understand the world as if you were another person? Or, no matter the effort, would you still be imprisoned within yourself -feeling what you assume you would feel if you were in the same circumstance as her? That what you manage to sample of her condition is inevitably filtered through your own experience is far from profound, of course, but it is often buried within the empathy you think you are expressing. Empathy is not really how you feel about something; it is about how the other person feels.

But of course you are not the other person, nor have you lived the same life as her. Perhaps, in fact, it is the other way around: the more she has experienced similar things to you -the more like you she is- the more you can empathize with her feelings. Still, this merely reduces empathy to a set of feelings; I suspect there is more to it than this, however. An integral component of empathy is understanding. Much like the philosopher Thomas Nagel’s famous question, ‘What is it like to be a bat?’, surely the central question for empathy would be to ask what it would be like to be the person in question -not just how to feel like her. It seems to me there must be a cognitive, as well as emotional side to empathy.

I found an insightful essay on this multimodal requirement as exemplified in the fictional character of Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova. She felt that Holmes seemed to be able to put himself in the victim’s mind, if not necessarily in their heart. https://aeon.co/essays/empathy-depends-on-a-cool-head-as-much-as-a-warm-heart

As she observes, according to Holmes ‘whatever is emotional is opposed to that true cold reason which I place above all things… It is of the first importance not to allow your judgment to be biased by personal qualities… The emotional qualities are antagonistic to clear reasoning.’

But, how can that be? For Holmes, his ability to understand the problem is based on his creative imagination. ‘In fact, his success stems from the very non-linearity and imaginative nature of his thinking, his ability to engage the hypothetical just as he might the physical here-and-now… So Holmes is an expert at the very thing that makes empathy possible in the first place – seeing the world from another’s point of view. He is entirely capable of understanding someone else’s internal state, mentalising and considering that state.’ But not just that.

An emotional lack may permit a relative freedom from prejudice. ‘[R]ecent research bears this out. Most of us start from a place of deep-rooted egocentricity: we take things as we see them, and then try to expand our perspectives to encompass those of others. But we are not very good at it… Even when we know that someone’s background is different from our own, and that we should be wary of assuming we can understand their situation as though it were our own, we still can’t shake off our own preconceptions in judging them. The more cognitively strained we are (the more we have going on mentally), the worse we become at adjusting our egocentric views to fit someone else’s picture of the world… Our neural networks might be mirroring another’s suffering, but largely because we worry how it would feel for us. Not so Holmes. Because he has worked hard to dampen his initial emotional reactions to people, he becomes more complete in his adjustment, more able to imagine reality from an alternative perspective.’

So, in a way, sometimes it’s actually their difference from us that allows us to judge what the other person is going through more accurately. ‘Empathy it seems, is not simply a rush of fellow-feeling, for this might be an entirely unreliable gauge of the inner world of others.’

In fact, ‘The ability to see the world from another set of eyes, to experience things vicariously, at multiple levels, is training ground for such feats of imagination and reason that allow a Holmes to solve almost any crime, an Einstein to imagine a reality unlike any that we’ve experienced before (in keeping with laws unlike any we’ve come up with before), and a Picasso to make art that differs from any prior conception of what art can be.’ Imagination, and emotion; there’s a commonality: ‘to be creative, just as to be empathetic, we must depart from our own point of view… The emotional element in empathy is itself a limited one. It is selective and often prejudicial – we tend to empathise more with people whom we know or perceive to be like us.’

I was talking to a friend in a grocery store lineup the other day, masked and socially distanced of course, when an elderly  man with his mask hanging from his chin moved into the space ahead of her. He made no apology, nor did he seem to understand the need for distancing in a line. He’d merely seen a space and moved into it.

“The poor old dear,” I muttered, my voice muffled by my mask. I’m not sure if she heard my words, but my friend’s eyes first saucered in surprise at my reaction, and then narrowed into an angry scowl at the intrusion as she turned to glare at him.

“Excuse me, sir,” she said, addressing the old man, ‘The line starts back there…” And she pointed past a number of people standing behind her.

He turned his head slowly and stared at her for a moment. “There was a space in front of you, though…”

“As there is supposed to be,” she interrupted before he could finish his sentence. She sounded angry –righteously angry.

The only indication that he had understood her anger was to shrug and turn his head away again.

“And you are not wearing your mask, sir,” she continued, her anger obviously unsated.

His response was to turn and point to the mask hanging from his chin and smile. “I can’t breathe very well through it,” he said in a soft, firm voice.

I risked a step forward. “He’s just an old man, Janice,” I said, trying to talk softly, but the sound was no doubt further muffled by the thick mask I was wearing. “He’s probably a little confused. Let it go…”

Janice stared at me for a moment. “Then he shouldn’t be shopping on his own, G,” she said, shaking her head as if she couldn’t understand why I would be defending him. “These are dangerous times…”

I blinked, similarly wondering why she was so adamant.

“There are rules, G!” I could see by the movement of her mask that she had sighed. “We can’t just bend the rules because we feel sorry for someone.”

“Maybe not, but it would create less of a fuss for people in the line if we just let him proceed.” I looked at the line behind me and nobody else seemed upset by his action -if they had even noticed. “And he doesn’t seem bothered by them either…”

She continued to stare at me -blankly at first, uncomprehendingly.

Then, when I smiled behind my mask, I think she saw the wrinkles from my eyes because her aggressive posture seemed to relax. “Well, maybe just this once, eh?” she said, and shrugged.

Empathy in action…

Flowers are slow and weeds make haste

Sometimes it’s obvious that we all need to cope –In the fell clutch of circumstance, I have not winced, nor cried aloud. Under the bludgeonings of chance, my head is bloody but unbowed, in the immortal words of the poet William Ernest Henley. Those words have seen me through many of Life’s crises, but each time, it seemed as if I suffered alone; each time I needed encouragement to endure.

When my own personal needs had decreased, however -when I was less consumed with my own fate- I could understand that everyone suffers at one time or another; my own suffering  was far from unique. We all inhabit our own universes; each of us hides a solipsist under our clothes: my fate determines my universe -the only one I have ever experienced.

It should come as no surprise, then, that even in my own universe, other things also feel a need to survive, and when that is in doubt, they suffer. Of course I judge my own travails to be both paramount and likely more intense, but is that fair? I can feel my pain, experience my anguish, but no matter how much empathy I attempt, others are still remote from me; I cannot feel their pain -I must translate it into how I might perceive something similar: I must suffer by proxy, as it were.

Each living thing suffers, though; each living thing strives to correct the situation if it is able, or otherwise succumbs. It is simply not enough to posit that the degree of suffering varies in direct proportion to the complexity of its nervous system. How can we measure suffering?  Is it fair to attribute the gasping of a freshly caught fish -no doubt desperate for oxygen when dumped onto the deck of a fishing boat- merely to some mindless reflex reaction? Or that a common housefly, seeking freedom through a closed window, and buzzing desperately at it until it eventually tires and drops to the sill, feels some proto-anguish at the imprisonment it cannot understand?

The very act of avoidance suggests a need to prevent something undesired, but I realize that I have to be careful not to push the analogy too far. Most would exclude the Plant Kingdom, if not most of the Animal Kingdom -Homo sapiens is touchy about sharing the spoils of suffering. Still, we are a little more generous about other things, other words: awarding the ability to be resilient in the face of adversity to many and sundry things -even plants.

It’s a small victory for flowers, I suppose, but I chanced upon an article in Vox about accidents in flowers that reminded me of that stanza in the poem by Henley that I quoted above. https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2020/4/14/21208857/pandemic-plants-evolution-beauty

It describe the efforts of some flowers which have been knocked down by wind, say, that try to right both themselves and the flowers on their stalks, and to rotate back, as best they can, into a position better suited for pollinationNot just to enable them to gather more sunlight for photosynthesis, mind you, but align themselves again both to attract, as well as to enable insects to access the pollen they need to propagate.

I guess that in the larger scheme of things, this is a trivial observation, and yet think about it.  How could a downed flower reorient itself and its leaves towards the sun to enable photosynthesis? Plants have no muscles -and even if they did, what would organize the response?

Scientists, of course, are curious, and not satisfied with merely a sense of wonder and awe at the determination of the little plant struggling to regain some semblance of the old order; botanists have discovered that a plant hormone –auxin– elongates the cells of the stem on the side that is farthest from the light, pushing the stem or the leaf towards the light. It’s called phototropism.

I know it’s always better to find explanations -mechanisms- for this sort of thing, but I have to confess that I am more amazed that a presumably mindless plant can act as if it had a brain striving to organize its responses. It’s one thing to explain turning towards the light with mechanical changes in cells that don’t receive enough, but another thing entirely to explain the seemingly purposive correction of the floral orientation to improve the likelihood of insect visitation and hence improve pollination. It’s not as simple as turning towards a light – first of all, the flower has to be seen by a bee, say, but the bee also has to be able to land on it properly to acquire the pollen. An upside down flower in the grass is unlikely able fulfil either of these conditions.

Somehow, the thought of a flower resisting death, and striving to correct its situation no matter the odds against it, is incredibly inspiring -touching, even. I wouldn’t want to suggest it suffers under these conditions -or at least not as we humans would envisage suffering, but I would point out that we tend to judge everything using only those rules which we have come to understand apply to us. As time and knowledge expand, however, our opinions change. There was a time, not so distant, when there was little concern about cruelty to animals -or cruelty to others of our own species, for that matter. Little thought was given to communication systems among animals, and even less to signals among plants. If they didn’t do it like us, then it wasn’t happening…

Times change, though, don’t they? Or maybe it’s not so much the times as our attitudes toward those things with which we interact. I am still thrilled at listening to a bird sing; I am soothed by the wind wandering slowly through the leaves of a tree, enchanted by the sound of water trickling over a rock in a swiftly flowing stream. I am happy for somebody else to work out the mechanisms and reduce them to mathematical modelling. For me, the experience is as important as the explanation.

I am more entranced by the sound of geese flying high above me in a mountain fog, than curious as to their destination. In the words of the poet Kahlil Gibran:

Beauty is life when life unveils her holy face.
But you are life and you are the veil.
Beauty is eternity gazing at itself in a mirror.
But you are eternity and you are the mirror.

I had as lief have been myself alone

Being alone is not easy for many of us -perhaps because it allows an inner dialogue to emerge that is ordinarily submerged in the noise of the crowd. And yet it is in solitude that a still small voice emerges: the one that allows us to assess our actions, and to argue with ourselves.

This, of course, was a central theme of the Jewish-German thinker Hannah Arendt who fled Nazi Germany to America. I suppose she came to public attention largely because in 1961, The New Yorker commissioned Arendt to cover the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi SS officer who helped to orchestrate the Holocaust.

I happened upon an essay on solitude by Jennifer Stitt, then studying at University of Wisconsin-Madison who was obviously impressed by Arendt’s work: https://aeon.co/ideas/before-you-can-be-with-others-first-learn-to-be-alone

Arendt believed that ‘solitude empowers the individual to contemplate her actions and develop her conscience, to escape the cacophony of the crowd – to finally hear herself think… Arendt was surprised by Eichmann’s lack of imagination, his consummate conventionality. She argued that while Eichmann’s actions were evil, Eichmann himself – the person – ‘was quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither demonic nor monstrous. There was no sign in him of firm ideological convictions.’ She attributed his immorality – his capacity, even his eagerness, to commit crimes – to his ‘thoughtlessness’. It was his inability to stop and think that permitted Eichmann to participate in mass murder… A person who does not know that silent intercourse (in which we examine what we say and what we do) will not mind contradicting himself, and this means he will never be either able or willing to account for what he says or does; nor will he mind committing any crime, since he can count on its being forgotten the next moment.’ The banality of evil.

I also discussed this in an essay I wrote last year in relation to extremism and loneliness: https://musingsonwomenshealth.com/2019/03/27/society-is-no-comfort-to-one-not-sociable/

But here I’m not so concerned with the aberrant aspects of enforced solitude -during a quarantine, say- because being lonely and being alone are separate creatures. Most of us are never really alone -that’s when we meet our inner selves. It’s when there is no one else inside, that we feel lonely. ‘Eichmann had shunned Socratic self-reflection. He had failed to return home to himself, to a state of solitude. He had discarded the vita contemplativa, and thus he had failed to embark upon the essential question-and-answering process that would have allowed him to examine the meaning of things, to distinguish between fact and fiction, truth and falsehood, good and evil.’ This suggested to Arendt ‘that society could function freely and democratically only if it were made up of individuals engaged in the thinking activity – an activity that required solitude. Arendt believed that ‘living together with others begins with living together with oneself’… Thinking, existentially speaking, is a solitary but not a lonely business; solitude is that human situation in which I keep myself company. Loneliness comes about … when I am one and without company’ but desire it and cannot find it.’

‘Arendt reminds us, if we lose our capacity for solitude, our ability to be alone with ourselves, then we lose our very ability to think. We risk getting caught up in the crowd. We risk being ‘swept away’, as she put it, ‘by what everybody else does and believes in’ – no longer able, in the cage of thoughtless conformity, to distinguish ‘right from wrong, beautiful from ugly’. Solitude is not only a state of mind essential to the development of an individual’s consciousness – and conscience – but also a practice that prepares one for participation in social and political life. Before we can keep company with others, we must learn to keep company with ourselves.’

Millenia ago, when I was a child in Winnipeg, I remember having to stay away from school and in our house for a week or two because, in those pre-vaccine days, I had the measles. I would stare through the bedroom window at my friends playing in the field outside in the snow and tell my mother how bored I was. After reading every book I could find, and tiring of the adult radio programs she was fond of listening to while she cooked, I would wander into the kitchen and complain that there was nothing to do. She would listen patiently for a while, and then shoo me out of the room.

I still remember the day at breakfast that I announced that I had decided I was going to go out and play with my friends. It was Saturday and everybody was throwing snowballs at each other -I could even see them through the frosty kitchen window. I tried to look determined and crossed my arms over my chest like I’d seen my father do when he was intent on something.

“It’s only been 5 days, G,” she said, shaking her head. “You’re still contagious.”

I shrugged at the argument. “They’ve all had measles, mother… And besides, I’ll be so wrapped up none of my measles could get at them.”

She smiled at me -it was one of those fake smiles she usually put on when she was trying to hide her frustration. “How do you know they’ve all had it, G?” Her face softened when she could see I no longer had my arms crossed over my chest. “What do you think would happen then?”

I thought about it for a moment. The teacher had warned us that measles could be dangerous to some children. She’d never actually told us what that meant, but at recess Jamie told me that his uncle had got a bad case when he was young and something had happened to his head –‘gitis’, or something. He was never the same after it, apparently, but he didn’t explain.

“What could happen, G…?” I was taking too long to answer her question, I suppose.

I remember shrugging and looking first at the window, and then at the floor. “Gitis,” I mumbled guiltily, not confident I had pronounced it correctly. Anyway, I should have thought of that, and prepared a suitable rebuttal.

It had an unexpected result at any rate: she bent down and hugged me. “That’s right, sweetie,” she said after kissing the top of my head. “I knew you understood why I need to keep you home. You just had to think about it, that’s all…”

I now realize that Arendt was on to something. There really is a voice somewhere inside if we stop to listen to it. Mine sounds suspiciously like my mother’s, though…

An accident of birth

For years now, I have picked through the garden of my life -sometimes for pleasure, and sometimes for utility. I weed, of course -the privilege of growing in my aging plot is largely contingent on my having planted it in the first place. Contingent on the purpose for which it was intended. Things that arrive unannounced might be tolerated at times, but the recent discovery of a flower tucked in amongst the lettuce plants instead of growing where I’d planted others of its kind, spoke more of my neglect than serendipity.

And now that I’ve been retired long enough to ponder these things, it occurred to me that the peripatetic guest may not have the same value in its new home. It’s still a flower to be sure -it’s still beautiful, and still proffers its petals as seductively to passing bees- but is it really the same flower as one that was the product of my labour? Does the intent flavour the result?

For some, I suspect it’s a trivial question: surely a daisy, say, is a daisy, no matter whether it arrived accidentally or was planted in the spot. It is a gift, they might say -something for which gratitude not deliberation is appropriate. In a sense, of course, they are correct. And yet, is all the work I may have expended -choosing its pedigree and colour,  calculating a location that might offer it the best chance to thrive, and then watering and weeding- do these not affect the appreciation of the resulting flower? And was appreciation not a large part of the original incentive that led to its planting?

For that matter, does a gift share an equal merit as the same item obtained through work and planning? Does it even possess the same meaning?

It occurred to me that maybe I simply have too much time on my hands now that I’m retired, and I tried to shelve the thought along with all those books I have been meaning to read once the opportunity presented itself. But the question continued to poke annoyingly at my brain in the evenings whenever my eyes tired of reading. I just could not understand what it was about the problem that was continuing to disturb me; and more, was I the only one who even thought there might be something to it?

I can’t say I actively sought an answer -quite frankly, I couldn’t even think of a way to phrase the question- but I did stumble upon a short philosophical enquiry written by Jonny Robinson, a tutor and ‘casual lecturer’ in the department of philosophy at Macquarie University in Australia: https://aeon.co/ideas/would-you-rather-have-a-fish-or-know-how-to-fish

It touched on a theme that seemed eerily similar: how there may be a difference in the quality of the knowledge of Truth, depending upon how it was acquired. ‘Many are born into severe poverty with a slim chance at a good education, and others grow up in religious or social communities that prohibit certain lines of enquiry. Others still face restrictions because of language, transport, money, sickness, technology, bad luck and so on. The truth, for various reasons, is much harder to access at these times. At the opposite end of the scale, some are effectively handed the truth about some matter as if it were a mint on their pillow, pleasantly materialising and not a big deal. Pride in this mere knowledge of the truth ignores the way in which some people come to possess it without any care or effort, and the way that others strive relentlessly against the odds for it and still miss out.’

Each type is in possession of the same Truth, presumably, although in one case it is a gift and in the other, has required an effort to obtain it. It seems to me there is a difference, though: ‘the person ready to correct herself, courageous in her pursuit of the truth, open-minded in her deliberation, and driven by a deep curiosity has a better relationship to truth even where she occasionally fails to obtain it than does the indifferent person who is occasionally handed the truth on a silver platter.’

So, to my question about the itinerant daisy: does it possess the same intrinsic worth as one that has been purposely planted and nourished? Robinson, for his essay, puts the question slightly differently: ‘Is it better to know, or to seek to know?’ Both seem labyrinthine, and unanswerable -trivial, perhaps- largely because they are both perspectival.

So he rephrases the question in the form of a thought-experiment: ‘Would you rather have a fish or know how to fish?’ If having a fish is the result of knowing how to catch it, that is different from having to wait for someone who knows how to fish, and hoping she will actually give the one she caught to you.

Robinson feels it is the same with knowledge. An isolated fact (knowledge) may be valuable, but if you have learned how to acquire more knowledge, you are not limited to that one fact. It is, in fact, a type of synergism: knowledge plus the ability to add to it turns out to be better than the mere fact of knowledge on its own.

That accidental daisy growing by itself amongst the lettuce is still beautiful, but if it truly was an accident, that may or may not be the end of the line for it -especially if I don’t know how to care for it. It is, in that case, on its own. In fact, given its location, I may even think of it as an undesirable -a weed- and pull it out.

It does seem to suggest that it has a different value, a different essence, from a bed of cherished Gerbera Daisies planted and growing contentedly, in their assigned place. In a sense, it is no longer a flower -or, at any rate, not one that I treasure.

One question, though, inevitably leads to another: what is growing alongside the lettuce then…?