Scaffolds

It’s exciting to realize that, despite my age, there are so many things that I have not stopped to think about: the seemingly random encounters with anonymous people in the course of a visit to a store or waiting for a bus downtown; inconsequential interactions with strangers on a sidewalk waiting for the light to change; overheard conversations at the next table in a Food Court in an otherwise unimportant mall. They are mostly forgettable, I suppose -background noise- and yet in retrospect, they ultimately form the invisible scaffolds of our lives.

Of course, I guess it’s tempting to dismiss most of these encounters -and anyway, there are far too many of them to remember, and they are far too numerous to catalogue let alone ponder the significance of each. I would feel overwhelmed if I had to remember the details of everything that happened to me in a day; I feel blessed that no one asks; it is not a requirement for old age.

And yet, I sometimes wonder if those forgotten contacts with the world form the hidden webs that bind me to reality: Occurro ergo sum, as it were. They have obviously decreased in our pandemic lockdowns and social distancing of late, but they are all around, if you watch for them. I still have trivial conversations with those lining up the requisite three feet away in the grocery store; I still feel a compulsion to interact with flowers in the woods and I continue to follow mysterious and partially hidden trails to see where they lead. I still attempt to understand the yawp of crows scattered in the forest as they try to stay in contact with their flock; and if our eyes engage, I still smile -masked or not- when I pass a person I don’t recognize on the sidewalk to show them I also am a member of their flock. How else to honour an otherwise forgettable stranger? How else to make sense of my life?

*

An elderly man (I try not to look for comparisons with my own misuse of years) apologized to me for coughing as I sat beside him on a bus a few weeks ago. He was wearing a mask above which, by chance rather than intent I suspect, his nose was almost entirely visible. He clearly had not entirely mastered the art of masking, because one ear also stuck out like Mickey Mouse from the pressure of the straps, and there was a rhythmic indentation of the fabric with each of his laboured inhalations.

“Damned thing keeps making me cough,” he ventured, as he apologized with his eyes and re-buried his nose. “But I’m double-vaccinated,” he hastened to assure me in the same muffled tone as his apology.

And that was that. Two streets later, he got off after stroking me with his eyes as he left -for tolerating him, I suppose.

*

A woman passed me carrying her tray to the drop-off box in the mall’s Food court to which I’d been travelling on the bus. I was sitting, unmasked, at a socially distanced table eating a bagel and lingering over my coffee, when she accidentally bumped into me, dropping a napkin onto my arm as she tried to avoid stepping on her little boy. Her eyes immediately registered horror -partially at the incursion into my space of course, but mainly for the fomitic napkin that had landed on my arm. I imagine the fact that she had also forgotten to don her mask after finishing her meal suddenly occurred to her as an added and unforgivable crime as well.

Ordinarily, I suppose this would have elicited no more than an embarrassed apology, but in this pandemic age, it seemed to her to have been an egregious trespass. “Oh my God, sir,” she muttered sotto voce, so as not to incur the antagonism of the otherwise uninterested patrons. “I’m so sorry!”

I smiled at her as a sign of forgiveness, and merely blew the napkin off my arm and onto the floor. I hoped she would see this as yet another sign of absolution, but she merely blushed, picked up the napkin and hurried off, while looking around the room to make sure no one else had noticed.

*

Much later, I was about to enter a popular pathway leading to the trail around a local lake when a dog rounded the corner. I like dogs -no, actually I love them and stop to pet every dog who will let me, leashed or not. I walk the trail several times a week, so by now, I suspect I know every dog I pass -or is it the other way around? At any rate, the dog I met that day was one I didn’t recognize, and it was attached to an ownerless leash. It was a black Labrador, I think, and as is the custom of every lab I’ve ever met, it started wagging its tail furiously and trotted up to me to say hello.

There’s something incredibly endearing about the look in their eyes as they poke their noses into strangers as if they were long lost relatives; it’s impossible not to recognize that there is something intelligent and curious staring out at you and requesting a pat.

I, of course, can never resist, but before I could reach out and touch its head, the owner came puffing around the corner and screamed at me. “Don’t you pet that dog,” she yelled, her eyes not at all as welcoming as her dog’s.

“He came up to me wagging his tail,” I explained, not a little put off by her attitude. I didn’t recognize the wrinkles I could see on her face above her mask, either; she was obviously not a local.

Her eyes narrowed and her forehead rumpled at my explanation as she grasped the leash firmly in two hands and pulled the dog away. “Dogs can catch human diseases, you know,” she added, shaking her head irritably.

The dog glanced at her and then back at me; I could swear his eyes apologized to me for his master’s rudeness and I could almost see him shrug, as he trotted reluctantly away realizing he had no choice in the matter.

I can only hope he realized that I was left without a choice as well…

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…