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…

A rarer spirit never did steer humanity

Okay, here’s a seemingly obvious and probably self-evident question: What constitutes personhood? I mean I assume that, until recently, it was something only bestowed on us -humans, that is- but what, exactly, is a person? And does the reason we were its exclusive possessors have anything to do with the fact that we are the bestowers? In United States law at any rate, a corporation -in that it has certain privileges, legal responsibilities, and is able to enter into contracts- may be considered a legal person. But even so, it is us that have granted it that status. We, alone, seem to be the arbiters of who gets into our club.

That we are both enamoured of our rank, and also the adjudicators of the contestants is a fine point, perhaps, And yet, there you have it: it’s our ball, so we get to decide who plays. We have decided it has to be a thing that can interact (with us), that has a sense of identity (as a self or as an entity), and that, presumably, can assume and accept responsibility for its actions.

Fair enough, I suppose, although I continue to wonder if those criteria are not a little too restrictive, their legal usefulness notwithstanding. I continue to suspect things like corporations and their vested interests getting the nod, whereas trees, or dogs, say, do not. I think it’s reasonable that some entities that seem to have some personal interest to me, and with which I interact, however indirectly, should qualify as something close to personhood at times: a tree that I pass each day and whose leaves I enjoy seeing dance in the wind, perhaps, or the peak of a mountain that I use to reference my location.

Okay, I realize those examples might be over-stretching the idea of personhood and diluting the whole purpose of the concept, but what if I have named each of them -given them an identity that draws them out of the background, and allows them to interact with me by fulfilling some need, however mundane or whimsical? And no, I don’t imagine the mountain peak whose position is guiding me out of the woods has any consciousness of itself or its purpose any more than an inuksuk in the barrens of northern Canada; it remains what it is: many things -or nothing- to whoever sees it. But, a potentially useful entity nonetheless. And for that matter, so is a corporation with which I have no dealings in another country, I suppose…

They are, each of them, metaphors in a way: things regarded as representatives or symbols of other things. Beneficial items whenever we might need them. And yet, are they persons?

The etymology of ‘person’, although complicated and disputed, is revealing, I think: the Online Etymology Dictionary describes person asa mask, a false face, such as those of wood or clay worn by the actors in later Roman theater. OED offers the general explanation of persona as “related to” Latin personare “to sound through” (i.e. the mask as something spoken through and perhaps amplifying the voice).’ Non-living entities, in other words, that in some situations pretend to be us.

I don’t mean to go overboard in my assignations of personhood, though -I suppose I only wish to defend my penchant for seeing agency in Nature. I recognize that I am inextricably entangled in its web and point out that it is me as much as I am it… So it was with some considerable relief that I discovered that I may not be sufficiently unique to necessitate a mention in the psychiatric DSM-5 bible. Thank you Aeon. https://aeon.co/ideas/a-rock-a-human-a-tree-all-were-persons-to-the-classic-maya

In an article for the online magazine, Sarah Jackson, an associate professor of Anthropology at the University  of Cincinnati in Ohio, wrote that ‘For the Maya of the Classic period, who lived in southern Mexico and Central America between 250 and 900 CE, the category of ‘persons’ was not coincident with human beings, as it is for us. That is, human beings were persons – but other, nonhuman entities could be persons, too… the ancient Maya experienced a world peopled by a variety of types of beings, who figured large in stories, imagery, social and ritual obligations, and community identities.’

She asks the intriguing question, ‘Do nonhuman persons need human beings to exist?’ For the Maya, ‘the answer was no. Nonhuman persons were not tethered to specific humans, and they did not derive their personhood from a connection with a human… In a Maya way of thinking, personhood is a resource in the world… The Maya saw personhood as ‘activated’ by experiencing certain bodily needs and through participation in certain social activities.’

But Jackson is careful to point out that for the Mayans it was not a magical world in which all of the things surrounding them were talking, or dispensing advice. ‘Rather, the experience would have been one of potentiality’ -rather like my mountain peak, I imagine. ‘they were prepared to recognise signs of personhood in a wide variety of places, and to respond appropriately when nonhuman entities signalled as such to them.’ Interestingly, ‘There’s one other element to consider, in blurring the boundaries of personhood. Personhood was a nonbinary proposition for the Maya. Entities were able to be persons while also being something else… they continue to be functional, doing what objects do (a stone implement continues to chop, an incense burner continues to do its smoky work). Furthermore, the Maya visually depicted many objects in ways that indicated the material category to which they belonged – drawings of the stone implement show that a person-tool is still made of stone.’

Jackson suggest that this idea is certainly of interest nowadays. ‘Challenging ourselves to illuminate assumptions about personhood (and its associated responsibilities and mutual obligations) sheds light on our own roles in constructing and deconstructing people, and the social and political consequences. Environment, race, immigration, civil discourse, gender identity, #MeToo: all of these topics link in some way to whom, or what, we value in comparison with our own experience of being a ‘person’, and our norms of what shared person-status means for action and interaction.’

Boundaries are porous -I like that; things are multifaceted, not forever confined to one identity -nothing need be either this, or that. It can shift, according to context, and perspective. According to need. My favourite mountain peak is a sleeping bear, by the way. I see it whenever I’m on the ferry and travelling from the island where I live to Vancouver. I miss it when I’m away…

Doth the lady protest too much?

I am neither a psychiatrist, nor a psychologist, and apart from a career in medicine, hold no official accreditation in counselling. Heaven only knows, my own Black Dog is never far away, and anxiety gathers little dust as it waits expectantly in a brightly lit corner of my closet. And yet I am still a sounding board in my retirement, it seems.

A colleague from my student days somehow recognized me in a prairie coffee shop, three days drive from my coastal home. I’ve never been good at faces, but sometimes a voice will riffle through the fading file cards in my head and find a memory lightly pencilled in.

I was sitting in a dark and unobtrusive corner of a Starbuck’s near the university in Saskatoon when a voice caught my attention. It was talking quietly on a phone, so I probably wouldn’t have noticed, except that it was at the next table and its owner spilled coffee on me during a nervous laugh.

“I’ll call you back,” she whispered into her phone and quickly grabbed the few napkins in which she had dressed her cookie. “I’m so sorry,” she said, greeting me more with her hands than her voice, as she attempted to wipe the coffee off my tee shirt.

“Don’t worry about it,” I said, taking the napkins from her hands and finishing the wipe myself. “Stuff happens…”

She sat back suddenly and fastened her eyes on my face like ocular nappies. “Don’t I…”

But her name came to me first. “Susan?”

She nodded enthusiastically, still not sure of herself. Then, as I was about to remind her of my name, “G…?” she said, and touched my arm excitedly.

I nodded, surprised, but impressed that she’d remembered my nickname from medical school. I have to admit that mine was the easier task, though -Susan, the valedictorian of my graduating class, had made a name for herself in oncology, and most doctors, no matter their specialties, would probably have read at least a few of her papers. I certainly had.

We joined our tables and sat reminiscing. There was a lot of ground to cover -I had recently retired after 40 years in practice, but she still seemed to be in the thick of things.

“I’m just having a quick coffee before I have to chair a conference at the U,” she said, checking her watch. “But I still have a few minutes,” she added, and smiled reassuringly. “What have you been doing since we last met?”

I knew she’d ask, but I hesitated before replying. My career had been a satisfying one, for sure, but certainly not as illustrious as hers. “I specialized in Ob/Gyne,” I said with a little shrug. “In Vancouver, actually, “ I added, knowing she would wonder what I was doing in a Saskatoon coffee shop. So when one of her eyebrows posed the silent question, I was quick to respond. “I’m retired now, and since I was born near here, I thought I’d do a little catching up.”

“Vancouver?” She said the word with a wistful look in her eyes. “I gave a presentation out there last year, G… I’ve always loved the west coast.” She sighed and rested her eyes on me again. “I’ve often wished I’d settled out there rather than in Toronto, you know…”

“There are probably more opportunities in Toronto.” I said. “I mean, it’s the center of the universe, and everything…” I meant it as a joke, really -the quintessentially Canadian retort whenever the city is mentioned- but it had a chilling effect on her and she shrugged apologetically.

“If I were still in practice, I’d likely be picking your brains at this stage, Susan,” I said, suddenly ashamed of my thoughtless remark.

She smiled, but still apologetically, and she sat for a while, quietly nibbling on her cookie. Suddenly I could feel her eyes resting on me again. “Was there ever a time in your career when you felt like an imposter?”

I thought about it for a moment, then nodded. “Sometimes when I was trying to justify a diagnosis, or a procedure, to the young resident doctors… Especially when they’d tell me that my colleagues did things differently.”

She took a deep breath and a little smile surfaced briefly on her lips. “I feel it more and more as I get older.” She concentrated on her cookie for a few bites. “It’s like I’m supposed to be the expert, but things move so rapidly in my field it’s difficult, if not impossible, to keep up -and I’m always afraid that one day, someone is going to put up their hand at a lecture and point out that I’m not current anymore.”

I stared at my rapidly cooling coffee and nodded. That -plus age, of course- played a large role in my decision to retire.

“My psychologist partner calls it my ‘imposter syndrome’ and laughs at me,” she said, shaking her head. “He doesn’t take it very seriously -I suppose that’s why I unloaded it on you… Sometimes I just need to talk about it with someone.”

“The welcome stranger…?” I rolled my eyes to show I was kidding.

She smiled half-heartedly, but I could tell she wasn’t finished yet.

“After all these years, I wonder if the mask still fits,” she said, more to the cookie than to me. “That’s what reputation is, you know: a mask.” She finished off the cookie and sat back in her chair. “You work for years to achieve it, all the while wondering if it is starting to fray -if it still conceals the face underneath.” She chuckled, then scraped her chair back from the table. “I often think I should get out while it’s still intact. While it’s still worth something… Like a hockey player retiring after his team wins the Stanley Cup.”

She checked her watch and stood up, but as she stooped to pick up a rather heavy looking briefcase, her eyes interrogated me once again. “I have to leave for Toronto right after the conference this afternoon, but were you planning to attend? Lunch is provided. Maybe we could meet?”

I smiled warmly at her suggestion, but shook my head. I’m retired now; I no longer carry a mask. “But if you’re ever in Vancouver again…” And yet, even as I spoke, I could sense a change as she rummaged around in her head for an appropriate Saskatoon conference persona.

She nodded, hugged me briefly, and hurried out the door. But I could see her pulling her disguise back on as she left.

Is Whispering Nothing?

Sometimes I randomly accede to the frivolous demands of boredom, but more frequently I am goaded, and approach not of my own volition, but like Don Quixote, hoping to right some wrong. At those times I am, I like to think, teleology’s servant. I assume that it is the purposes they end up championing, rather than the initial inciting events that deserve my interest. After all, Curiosity is the lust of the mind, as Thomas Hobbes reminded us.

So, when I happened upon an article questioning whether women were less important than cows in India, I was intrigued: http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20170630-are-women-less-important-than-cows-in-india I claim no omniscience of societal customs –not even of my own, perhaps- and I have to admit that my background is in Gynaecology, not Anthropology, but nonetheless I couldn’t resist the allure of a sociological pentimento. Is a mask really meant to deceive, or merely illustrate a reality that is otherwise hidden? Unnoticed when undisguised?

‘The striking photos are the brainchild of Sujatro Ghosh, a Delhi-based photographer, who believes that Indian society values the lives of cattle more highly than the lives of women. In order to call attention to endemic misogyny that he feels disfigures cultural life in India (where authorities, Ghosh says, are more likely to punish the mistreatment of a cow than the abuse of a woman or a girl), the photographer invited his female friends to pose for photos wearing a cow mask […].’

The idea of metaphor to illustrate perceived inequity whether social or gendered, is certainly not new of course –not even in art: ‘Ghosh’s photos echo earlier efforts by artists to expose the sexist instincts of cultural institutions. Preferring the visual pun provided by gorilla (as opposed to cow) masks, members of the all-female collective known as the Guerrilla Girls have, for the past three decades, been committed to raising awareness of issues of gender (and racial) bias in the international art world.

‘Relying on street art to communicate their message, the anonymous activists are perhaps best known for a series of arresting posters from the 1980s that have become as recognisable as any works of contemporary art from the period. […] The Guerilla Girls’ provocative poster was rejected by city officials from display on New York transport on the grounds that it was too risqué. The banner satirises French artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s lounging portrait of a concubine, La Grande Odalisque (1814), slipping an ape mask over her head and turning the image into one that is impossible to ignore.’ In fact, the striking metaphor has not been lost in other venues, either: ‘Placed alongside Ghosh’s viral photos from this week, the Guerrilla Girls’ memorable poster corroborates a recent claim made by another incognito icon, Banksy: “If you want to say something and have people listen, then you have to wear a mask.”’ (Banksy –to quote Wikipedia- is ‘an anonymous England-based graffiti artist as well as a political activist.’ His ‘works of political and social commentary have been featured on streets, walls, and bridges of cities throughout the world.’)

I suppose we are all inclined to read between the lines at times. To wonder why a particular thought needs to be portrayed covertly. There is a thrill in deciphering a metaphor, I think –first of all in knowing that it is indeed a metaphor and not really meant to trick the wary… More to beguile them. But more importantly perhaps, the ability to peek behind the curtain suggests membership in a cadre of like minds. Or at least an awareness that someone else has noticed something that is often masked. Something usually hidden by equivocation or, to use a word I can rarely justify, sesquipedalianism –obfuscation, in slightly less confusing terms.

Sometimes we need to be jolted by the unexpected, the unusual, to even notice something. We are, by and large, creatures of context; it is where we feel most comfortable. Incongruity is unsettling and, as in harmony, we feel a need for a resolution of any dissonance. But whereas in music we can passively await the adjustment, in art there is a need to actively pursue accommodation. To decide what it is that makes us feel uneasy and why. It is a goad that brooks no turning away.

It’s no accident, that art has been with us from the beginning of Time, I suspect. That we have been compelled to draw things on whatever surface was available, speaks to our need interpret whatever we felt was important. Whether it was animals in motion, the beauty of the sky, or the mysteries of pregnancy, a visual representation seemed as necessary and important as the thing itself. And as full of meaning. Who knows what metaphors hide within the Palaeolithic paintings in the caves at Lascaux, or in the Venus of Laussel?

The risk, I suppose, is the temptation to view every creative act as serving a purpose other than the sheer joy of craftsmanship, the ecstasy of virtuosity, the fulfilment of imagination. And yet, to assume the cause might be merely one of portrayal, or even propitiation, is to denigrate the accomplishment, I think. We all see the world through our own eyes, naturally, but it is the ability to share our view and allow it to seep silently into other eyes, that is the gift of art. And if that opens minds –or, perhaps, even alters them- then maybe the circle is complete.