March 10, 2023
“Teach us to care and not to care,” says T.S. Eliot in Ash Wednesday. Let the reader of the following newsletter beware: it is written by someone who has very imperfectly managed to follow that wise admonition. I have always been much better at caring than not caring, at being involved rather than detached. My natural impulse is to jump in, not only without checking for water in the pool but sometimes not even making sure there is a pool. I have written an entire book based on the idea of reality as a creative tension of what Blake called Contraries, but Jung is quite right that no merely human being manages the godlike feat of uniting the opposites. To be human is to be one-sided. Human development is to make the same mistake over and over, but each time learning and growing from it. The best I can say is that I have tried to learn over the years about the tendency to care too much, or to care in the wrong way.
It is easy to be shocked and angered by people’s indifference to the amount of suffering, especially innocent suffering, that goes on in this world. It is also easy to dismiss such a reaction as self-righteous virtue-signaling, as it is now called. But better people than I have been troubled by it. In The Fall of Hyperion, Keats is confronted by a visionary figure who accuses him of being a “dreaming thing” who uses poetry as what Freud thought art was, a “narcosis,” a way of numbing oneself:
“None can usurp this height,” return’d that shade, But those to whom the miseries of the world Are misery, and will not let them rest.”
Keats asks, are there not those “Who feel the giant agony of the world” and “labour for mortal good”? The figure replies that such people are not “visionaries,” and thus do not bother with the escapist realm of art, but are rather out helping.
Surely this is the central Christian virtue of love—the spiritual love that the New Testament calls agape, unselfish, compassionate love for all other human creatures simply because they are human, exemplified by the greatest of Jesus’ parables, that of the Good Samaritan, who involved himself in the fate of a stranger by the side of the road. But the Good Samaritan only had to care for one person. Electronic global communication shows us millions of strangers who at every moment are suffering fates far worse than a roadside mugging. We could not go on living if we cared for the fate of every suffering creature in this world, and that includes animals. Only a god could care for all life, care enough to die for it, as Jesus did. Indeed, the parable only asks us to love our neighbor, and defines our neighbor as the one who enters into our life, whose suffering is immediately before us.
About the rest, about mass suffering, are we then permitted a distanced benevolence? Certainly it is the defense mechanism that most of us find necessary. Evolutionary psychology claims that there is even a Darwinian basis for it. In The Selfish Gene (1976), Richard Dawkins takes the Darwinian “survival of the fittest” down to the genetic level: it is the genes that are selfish, ruthlessly puppeteering human behavior in order to reproduce themselves. Faced with the fact that human beings are definitely capable of altruism, Dawkins asserts that unselfish care and sacrifice are possible but limited to an inner circle of family and tribe or clan, because the genes recognize that human interdependency on a close-knit basis increases the chances for survival, and therefore for the passing on of genetic material. But sympathy and sacrifice stop beyond the circle of close relations. Beyond that point, there is in fact antipathy and scapegoating of “others,” who are regarded as potentially threatening. This is playing out today on a global scale. You might think that people would express regretful compassionate refusal about the plight of immigrants and refugees: “I’m sorry, I recognize your need, but this is a lifeboat situation and we just cannot take in everybody.” But no: refugees are demonized. They are murderers and rapists—even though they aren’t—and we must take a hard line against them. Not just refugees: also the poor and needy in our own country, who are also dismissed as murderers and rapists, or at least as “parasites.” It is a way of coping through denial: prompting the rage is a fear of being overwhelmed by pity. Something similar is true of our hardheartedness about the sufferings of animals. “It’s only an animal; it’s not as if it’s a human being or something.”
Of course, not everyone is so heartless, but we all have to develop a way of shutting down empathy simply in order not to be drowned in the tide of human need. Some people do not read the news, and do not vote, simply I think for reasons of psychological self-defense. To read the news and care about it is to risk losing hope for the human species altogether. Worse, it is to risk coming to feel that perhaps the human race does not deserve to survive, that it would be better if we simply wiped ourselves out, as in fact we seem to be on the verge of doing.
On the other hand—words that I use more often than any other in a discussion class—being involved, whether emotionally or actively, can be a neurosis. “Caring” about someone or some cause can be a disguised power drive, a need to control. I am thinking of my father, who “cared” about his children in a way that combined genuine love with an anxious need to control and manage their lives. One of his tactics was to pick at me, trying to draw me into an argument, to infect me with his hysterical anxieties and over-reaction until I finally exploded at him, which of course did no good at all. Indeed, it meant he had won: now I was responding to his well-intentioned love with harsh words and insults, so that he had the moral high ground. My father was at least partly well intentioned, and also did many good things for me and for others, but the conservative tactic of “triggering the libs” works intentionally to do what my dad did blindly. The object is to get liberals and progressives all emotionally involved and wrought up, to get them to lose their balance and get sucked into a kind of hysteria. We have to learn not to react to such attempts at manipulation, to retain a serene detachment when they try to poke us and prod us into losing it. Such goading is a playground tactic, a kind of passive-aggressive bullying. When we don’t respond, they will try to twist that into an indication of weakness or cold elitism, so that in a way there is no winning. But then we have to detach from caring about that as well.
Sad to say, activists can trigger themselves, so that their genuine caring is hijacked by a power drive. These are the activists who start to hate on moral grounds. I do not agree with J.K. Rowling about trans people, but the kind of “activism” that has resorted to death threats and doxxing against her is itself a kind of hate. Such pseudo-activism is always high-minded, but in fact it is crazed and intoxicated by the very evil it claims to oppose. In Toni Morrison’s novel Song of Solomon, a character named Guitar embarks on a systematic attempt to kill an equivalent number of white people for every Black person killed for racist reasons. It makes no difference to him whether the white people he kills had anything to do with the racist murders or not. In his own eyes, he is pursuing justice. A good number of the January 6 crowd really did think they were being patriots. Activism turns into fanaticism and becomes dangerous when it relinquishes the saving detachment that doubts the absolute rightness of its cause. “The best lack all conviction while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity,” as Yeats said. The passion may originate in genuine grievance, but festers into the kind of spiteful resentment that Trump and Fox News eagerly encourage and manipulate. Detachment can be a kind of cold indifference, but it can also be a defense against being manipulated by those who are cunning in the ways of mob psychology.
That is indeed the big danger of “involvement” and “caring,” at least of a certain sort: it expresses a kind of neediness, and is therefore highly vulnerable to manipulation. I had to learn this the hard way in order to defend myself psychologically against my father and his righteous guilt trips, and I admit I have learned it imperfectly. Maybe that is an unconscious reason why one of my favorite works of literature is Milton’s Paradise Regained, which I have lately had the pleasure of talking about in the Expanding Eyes podcast. Paradise Regained, an account of Christ’s temptation in the wilderness by Satan, is a wonderful dramatization of the kind of saving detachment that is invulnerable to the manipulation that is Satan’s chief weapon. Through three temptations, hugely expanded from the bare accounts in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, we watch Satan try to manipulate Jesus by appealing to the full range of human fears and desires: fear for survival, desire for pleasure, wealth, fame, power, even wisdom. Jesus is not only impervious to these appeals, but his detached attitude enables him to reject each temptation with a serene yet biting wit, so that Satan is not only rebuffed but squelched. Some of my students do not like this Jesus, who is so different from the Buddy Christ they know, but I love him. The temptation to “turn these stones into bread” is turned into a double temptation. Satan is trying to play at once on Jesus’ fear about physical survival and on a kind of false charity, because Satan has disguised himself as a member of the deserving poor and begs Jesus to perform a miracle for humanitarian purposes. Jesus’ reply, “Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” could be construed as the kind of intellectual elitism that says “Let them eat words” when confronted with the poor and hungry. But if we are not detached even from the fear of starving to death, we have lost all dignity as human beings. Then we are not free, but victims of those who can enslave us with the threat of starvation. Starvation is a terrible fate, but so is wearing a sign that says “Will do anything for food.”
We rightly admire those who are involved when we are mere armchair liberals, sometimes, as with Gandhi and Martin Luther King, paying an ultimate price for their activism. Human nature being the twisted thing it is, however, we have to look at the full picture, lest we become like Mrs. Jellyby in Dickens’s Bleak House, who spends all her time dictating letters of social concern about the natives of Borrioboola-Gha while neglecting her own children, one of whom gets his head caught in an iron fence and has to be rescued by the real humanitarian, Esther Summerson. Mrs. Jellyby’s activism is just virtue signaling, as is the kind of “woke” activism that cancels people for minor verbal infractions.
Genuine activism often requires a kind of detachment that is developed by professional discipline. When Dr. Rieux, in Camus’ The Plague, says that to fight the plague you have to have a little of the plague in you, he means that doctors (and others in the healthcare professions) have to develop a toughminded professional detachment. They have to be able to cause pain in order to cure pain, and, more broadly, they need to remain to some extent uninvolved in the fate of their patients or they will burn out. The opposite of this is the excessive “caring” of some selfish people who demand intervention to keep a parent or loved one alive because they cannot bear to have them die. A similar kind of detachment is demanded of therapists, even of teachers. Any kind of leader responsible for other people’s lives has to become detached, not a “nice guy,” in order to enforce necessary discipline. The burden of such responsibility often makes such leaders rather aloof and irritable—Gandalf, Jean-Luc Picard, Shakespeare’s Prospero—though beneath the prickly surface there is deep and genuine care. Such discipline exacts its price. Its opposite is seen in the spoiled kids who have not been disciplined by their parents, who throw tantrums if their slightest wish is not granted. We are plagued these days with adults who act like spoiled brats, throwing tantrums aboard airplanes and what not. The attitude is: if I don’t get my way, it’s the end of the world. I have to get my way, and getting my way is defined as “freedom.” Such people show no detachment from their own self-centered desires.
It follows that there is a necessary discipline of being detached from one’s own suffering, not just that of others. We have to learn not always to be easy on ourselves, not wallow in our misery in some self-pitying way. The philosopher William James made a famous distinction between toughminded and tenderminded personalities. The toughminded person is skeptical, wary of falling into wish-fulfilment, and therefore empiricist, demanding strict proof in conformance to the reality principle. The tenderminded person is idealistic, wary of falling into stupid reductionism, and therefore open to the imaginative possibilities thrown up by human desire. The toughminded person is detached, which often means hiding safely behind walls of irony, pretending to a heroic stoicism that may really be a fear of disillusionment. The tenderminded person is concerned—a word used by both Paul Tillich and Northrop Frye—which often means pretending to a high-minded idealism that may really disguise a fear of admitting that the giants really do look like windmills and the fair Dulcinea an awful lot like a slattern.
In our society, then, detachment and involvement take on gender-conditioned associations. We all know that men are supposed to be toughminded, women tenderminded. Men often don’t care enough; women care too much and get “emotional.” They can’t do the tough things that demand a lot of cold, hard detachment. In Alice Munro’s “Boys and Girls,” the girl protagonist tries to set free the horse that her father and the hired hand were going to kill and butcher to provide meat for the foxes on the family’s fox farm. The men forgive her by dismissing her as “only a girl.” The horse had to be killed because the family’s livelihood depended on it, but she was not detached enough to face the cold, hard demand. In Robert Frost’s poem “Out, Out—“, a boy cuts off his hand with a saw, and dies from shock and loss of blood. The last line of the poem is, “Then they, since they were not the one dead, returned to their affairs.” That’s how it is: life goes on. Needless to say, the demand for toughminded detachment also applies to war.
In certain kinds of religion, detachment becomes absolute. The demand is to achieve transcendence by detaching from reality altogether, rejecting it as illusion. Under the Bo tree, the Buddha rejected the two emotions that attach us to this illusory world, desire and fear, just as Christ in the desert rejected all the possible temptations of this world. The result of such a thoroughgoing detachment is an exhilarated sense of liberation. “Let all things pass away,” says the Great Lord of Chou in Yeats’s poem “Vacillation.” Yeats also wrote a wonderful poem from the Great Lord’s perspective, “Lapis Lazuli,” which begins by saying that overly concerned people, significantly “hysterical women,” say that “if nothing drastic is done” then the sky will literally fall: “aeroplane and zepplin will come out” and beat the town flat. But Hamlet and Lear, though caught up in tragedy, are “gay,” “Gaiety transfiguring all that dread,” the gaiety of what Nietzsche, who was clearly influencing Yeats here, called amor fati, love of one’s fate. Looking down from a mountaintop upon “all the tragic scene” are three “Chinamen” carved in lapis lazuli, the stone of eternity: “Their eyes, their ancient glittering eyes / Are gay.” The gaiety comes from being invulnerable, from having cast off every attachment and therefore having nothing left to lose.
This condition of blessedness is detached even from the sufferings of those who remain caught in the world’s attachments. In Dante’s Purgatorio, Cato of Utica no longer cares for his wife Marcia, whom he loved so much in life that he let her leave him for his best friend, then took her back again later, because Marcia is now one of the damned in hell. The doctrine was that the blessed look down upon the torments of the damned with indifference. We find this appallingly cold-hearted, but it was a necessary theological conclusion. If the redeemed were to feel pity for the damned, it would disrupt their perfect bliss, so their feelings are, as it were, cauterized. Up to a point, we can understand: a spouse must learn to let go emotionally of an alcoholic or addict partner. Still, there must have been something loveable about Marcia, and it is exactly the combination of loveable with self-destructive that makes us agonize over some of the people in our lives. At some point we may begin to wonder whether certain kinds of enlightened detachment are not merely an aloofness that preserves some wise souls from the pain of grieving. Maybe we think that we prefer not to be quite that wise.
I have always distrusted the Wise Old Man pose, perhaps rightly. The Wise Old Man is an archetype, and anyone who pretends to embody an archetype is doing exactly that, pretending. What I distrust is the “Olympian detachment” that is “above the fray,” smugly superior. But I distrust my own distrust. Surely it is not better to be a histrionic Italian who makes high melodrama out of every life crisis. I learned that kind of “playing uproar” from my family, and it was not the best part of the family inheritance. The ideal of Stoic philosophy was apatheia, which the books warn you is not to be confused with English “apathy,” with mere indifference. But if it is not that, what is it? It is not numbness, peace through lobotomy, but rather a positive state of equanimity or tranquillity achieved through freedom from “the passions.” Stoicism had a strong influence on earlier Christianity: “Nor love thy life nor hate,” Michael advises Adam at the end of Paradise Lost. Still, I find myself wondering what price is paid for that equanimity, and in those moments I feel like Bones shouting at Spock in the original Star Trek. Vulcans do indeed seem to be Stoics: one casts out passion by accepting what one cannot change, and I can hear Spock refusing to indulge in an outburst of feeling by saying, “That would not be logical.” But I do not always choose to accept what I cannot change, and I do not always choose to be logical. That kind of rationality makes one a Vulcan, perhaps one of Swift’s Houyhnhnms, a superior alien or a rational animal, but not a human being.
Apparently the conflict between involvement and detachment is an issue even for God, who split his own vote over the matter, so to speak. The transcendent Father is so detached that he comes off as cold and complacent in Book 3 of Paradise Lost, doubtless the model for Blake’s satirical Nobodaddy, who is the daddy who always says no, the daddy with no body, and, baby, nobody’s daddy. Dante is more successful at the end of the Paradiso at capturing the experience of divine transcendence as a mystery that evokes awe and wonder, that is so far beyond both human conception and visualization that he must be portrayed totally symbolically, as a mandala, three circles that are one and yet three, with a human shape cruciform within. Goethe attempts to evoke a feminine counterpart of the transhuman as the Eternal Feminine on the very last pages of Faust. Transcendence is usually located at the top of the vertical axis mundi, but there is an equal-but-opposite experience of what is sometimes called the sublime at the bottom of the vertical axis, again with both male and female manifestations. There are many myths of a male figure at the bottom of a hill or mountain, asleep and perhaps dreaming the world, like Vishnu in Hindu mythology or the Red King in the Alice books. There are also Blake’s Albion and Joyce’s Finnegan. Goethe once again provides a female counterpart when Faust must descend to the uncanny realm of the Mothers.
God shows up in a whirlwind at the end of the Book of Job and makes a speech about how utterly beyond human understanding he is, and therefore not to be questioned. While he delivers some admittedly great poetry, in the end he comes off like the blustering Father in Paradise Lost, insisting that he marks every sparrow that falls, yet maintaining that he has no responsibility for the mess his creatures have made of things even though he designed them and predestines their every move. These days we call it gaslighting, and recognize that it is a standard tactic of authoritarians. In Jung’s audacious Answer to Job, God realizes that he has behaved badly with Job, and decides to become man in order to learn how the other half lives. The Incarnation has always been seen as God’s mercy, the sending of his own Son, who is an aspect of himself, out of love and compassion, to suffer for our sake, to be involved in the human fate. Medieval Catholicism provided a feminine version in the figure of the Virgin Mary. Dante’s rescue in The Divine Comedy begins with the pity of the Blessed Virgin, the figure of mercy, who ultimately sends Beatrice to rescue her failing lover. In an extraordinary scene, Beatrice, who as a redeemed figure should be, as we saw, beyond all suffering, stands on the floor of hell and, with tears in her eyes, begs Virgil to go to the aid of her wayward boyfriend. In Buddhism there is the transcendent Buddha and the Boddhisattva, who foregoes nirvana in order to aid others. On an archetypal level, these figures embody the paradoxical injunction to care and not to care.
The following passage from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces expresses, with poetic eloquence, an ultimate vision of the ecstasy of spiritual detachment and transcendence:
The happy ending of the fairy tale, the myth, and the divine comedy of the soul, is to be read, not as a contradiction, but as a transcendence of the universal tragedy of man. The objective world remains what it was, but, because of a shift of emphasis within the subject, is beheld as though transformed. Where formerly life and death contended, now enduring being is made manifest—as indifferent to the accidents of time as water boiling in a pot is to the destiny of a bubble, or as the cosmos to the appearance and disappearance of a galaxy of stars. Tragedy is the shattering of the forms and of our attachment to the forms; comedy, the wild and careless, inexhaustible joy of life invincible. (28)
To which my initial impulse is to say, no, no, no. God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world, and if it isn’t God doesn’t care? We may say that this is not Christianity, in which God is lovingly involved and caring, but rather some kind of overheated Nietzschean rhapsody—but then we remember the God of Job, the God who sends most of the human race to hell, the God who allows innocent children to die because of some master plan that no one has ever been privy to.
Yet the passage is too resonant and powerful merely to dismiss. I can accept God as a cosmic Otherness only if that is but one of his thousand faces. In The Productions of Time, especially in Part 3, I tried to make a case for another way of thinking of the divine, one that is not merely my notion but has been recurrent since the Romantic era. When we think of the spiritual as immanent rather than transcendent, downward and inward rather than “out there” somewhere, we arrive at the intuition of a power and a process to which I give the traditional name of the imagination. Unlike the transcendent God, it isn’t perfect, but rather blind and groping, at least at first, but is struggling in every individual, indeed in all living things, and throughout the ages, to open blind eyes and begin to remake the world. It is a power with two aspects, decreative and recreative. It cares about the suffering of the world, and tries to unmake and remake it, according to a model of gratified human desire, the fulfilment of what Northrop Frye called universal primary concerns.
This is a progressive vision, driven by the hope that there is a creative power working in and through time to redeem time. That is a comfort every time I look at the news, to think that all the suffering might be potentially purgatorial, refining the imperfect in the fires of desire and refashioning it into something humanly better. However, the problem with myths of progress is that they depend on donkey’s carrots: gratification is put off endlessly, until finally it is abandoned altogether. The progressive, activist vision of decreation and recreation in time needs to have a counterbalancing vision, one that would take the form of a detachment that opens an eye onto eternity here and now. I do not know much about the Buddhist philosophy of “mindfulness,” but it seems to recommend a detachment from being all-involved in one’s pain and anxiety, not a flight from those emotions but a stepping back and observing them while you are caught up in them. At the climax of the Bhagavad Gita, the god Krishna appears to the warrior Arjuna on the eve of battle and counsels him to detach his mind from all thought of consequences, simply to act in the moment. I think such detachment could lead to an experience of “eternity now,” however transient, that is what Campbell is really trying to get at.
Redemption in time, the redemption of time, is inevitably going to be paradoxical. If time is redeemed, that means that redemption has “always already” occurred. Campbell admits that this can never be fully comprehensible:
The paradox of creation, the coming of the forms of time out of eternity, is the germinal secret of the father. It can never be quite explained….The problem of the hero going to meet the father is to open his soul beyond terror to such a degree that he will be ripe to understand how the sickening and insane tragedies of this vast and ruthless cosmos are completely validated in the majesty of Being. The hero transcends life with its peculiar blind spot and for a moment rises to a glimpse of the source. He beholds the face of the father, understands—and the two are atoned. (147)
He immediately goes on to apply this to the meeting of God and Job, in which Job says, “I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear; but now mine eye seeth thee.” Of which Campbell says, “They are the words of one who has seen something surpassing anything that has been said by way of justification.”
In the last half dozen lines of the Paradiso, Dante stares at the mandala that is the symbolic manifestation of God, and for one brief moment, feels that he suddenly understands, before he feels himself falling back to earth again. That gap is what Blake called the one moment of the day that Satan cannot find. It is a Sabbath moment, detached from the labor of “building Jerusalem,” as Blake called our involvement in the creative process. It is the moment in which we care, with a love that passeth understanding, and yet in which we are beyond all care.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton, Bollingen Series XVII, 1949.