Last week, at a concert, an amiable parking lot attendant thanked us for being more pleasant to deal with than his previous customer. He offered no details, but it was easy enough to figure out what had happened. The parking fee had gone up to ten dollars, admittedly a rather stiff fee for parking a car, and the previous driver had thrown the kind of childish tantrum with which we have become all too familiar in the Trump and post-Trump era, the kind for which the former president himself has repeatedly provided a more than adequate model. Outbursts of angry aggression, whether online or up close and personal, are now commonplace, sometimes rising to the intensity of raw hatred. Within the same week, J.K. Rowling said that she had received threats of death and rape because of her opinions about trans people. Even if one does not agree with Rowling’s views, and I don’t insofar as I can figure out what they are from her murky expressions of them, let’s think about what is going on here: the response to someone’s perceived lack of compassion towards her fellow human beings is—rape and death? To a shocking degree, our society has normalized hate—all the more shocking in this case because those threats clearly, given their object, could not have come from far-right extremists.
How has this come about? Progress towards social justice and acceptance of differences of all kinds combined with economic insecurity caused by extreme income inequality have provoked insecurity and real social divisions. But the resulting conflicts have been artificially jacked up to the level of hate to serve the purposes of various factions. One is the media, who increase their audience by polarizing every conflict, acting as drug pushers addicting their readers or viewers to the toxic yet exhilarating drugs of fear and rage. This is an old story, the only new wrinkle being the globalization of the communications media. In C.S. Lewis’s novel That Hideous Strength, an academic who is tempted to write for the newspapers but has scruples about journalistic integrity is set straight by one of the bad characters: “Don’t you understand anything? Isn’t it absolutely essential to keep a fierce Left and a fierce Right, both on their toes and each terrified of the other? That’s how we get things done.” That is from a book published in 1946. By deliberately polarizing and doom-saying, the media not only increase their profits but serve as the instruments of those who use the hysteria about what we now call the culture wars to serve the purposes of a ruthless will to power.
If I have anything original to contribute to this assessment of our present situation it comes from being an old hippie who remembers the Spirit of the 60’s, summed up in the Beatles’ phrase “All you need is love.” The whole hippie phenomenon—it was too anarchistic to be called a movement—was based on non-aggression, on “peace,” in absolute contrast with the ethos of violence and revenge portrayed in the subject of last week’s newsletter, the current film The Northman. The counterculture, through such figures as Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan, had close ties with the civil rights movement, which also, through the leadership of Martin Luther King, was characterized by a refusal of hatred and aggression. King’s “Christmas Sermon on Peace” of 1968, is in some ways as important as his “I have a dream” speech five years previously. Countercultural pacifism was even reflected in fashion. Male hippies were deliberately non-masculine, wearing long hair, jewelry, bright clothes. The drug of choice, marijuana, mellowed you out rather than revved you up. The hippies were “flower children” whose ideal was a “Woodstock nation” of pastoral innocence. But of course flowers, though beautiful, fade quickly. The hippie era, which longed for a lost paradise, now seems like a lost paradise itself.
Is there anything more to this than grandpa’s nostalgic ruminations? “All you need is—” but “love” is a word that can mean almost anything. What might it mean here if it is anything more than empty sentimentality? Perhaps a more accurate term, although it can become something of a buzz word and certainly wouldn’t make a good song lyric, is “empathy.” Empathy, the ability to experience as another person experiences and thus bridge the gap between self and other, is what Theodore Sturgeon postulated as the most central human need in his classic literary science fiction novel More than Human in 1953. The story is about a motley crew of marginalized characters who happen to be mutants and the next step in human evolution. But the irony of the title is that their basic “super power” is the ability to unite in an experience of group empathy that they call bleshing, a portmanteau word combining “blending” and “meshing.” In his Introduction to Volume VI of The Collected Stories of Theodore Sturgeon, David Crosby, of the 60’s super-group Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, talks about how deeply More than Human’s ideal of group empathy affected him, how he used to think “I would love to be part of that kind of incredible link-up where people really understood each other and love each other and have unity of purpose.” It became his model for playing music in a group, and he was told that Sturgeon’s book became a model for the Grateful Dead as well.
If a science fiction writer and the member of a folk-rock band are not convincing authorities, we may observe that the importance of empathy was argued long before the ephemeral moment of the counterculture. Rousseau, whose philosophy helped lay the foundations for the Romantic movement, in his Discourse on Inequality (1755) that societies cannot be held together merely by the external coercion of the law. True community has to be bound together by “sympathy,” a necessary counterbalance to the “rational self-interest” that was fast becoming both a capitalist and a utilitarian political ideal. Rousseau regarded sympathy as a natural trait often suppressed by cultural forces, but in the Christian tradition empathy is the essence of the spiritual love called Agape, as contrasted with the natural human love called Eros. When Jesus was asked what was the greatest commandment, he said it was to love God, but also to love one’s neighbor as oneself, and the word he used was agape. When asked “Who is my neighbor,” he went on to recount what is arguably the central Christian parable, that of the Good Samaritan. The Agape, traditionally translated as “charity,” that motivates the Samaritan is compassion, and the compassion arises from empathy.
The fact that “I feel your pain” has become a cliché does not make it less true that empathy is evoked most powerfully by physical suffering. The judge dying of what is clearly cancer in Tolstoy’s powerful novella The Death of Ivan Ilych (1886) learns about empathy from the example of the peasant boy Gerasim who cares for him, saying that Ivan’s agonizing and undignified physical problems do not put him off because we will all come to the same end some day. A close parallel is Ingmar Bergman’s film Cries and Whispers (1972), in which a servant woman, Anna, holds in her arms compassionately, like a feminine piéta, a woman who has, again, died of cancer, while the woman’s two sisters stand off, repelled and afraid of death, both Tolstoy and Bergman linking fear of death with a self-centered attitude that has led to a superficial and meaningless life. What unites us on the deepest level is the “democracy of the body,” the level of raw pain and gross physical functions that we flinch from, partly because they are so visceral but partly because they remind us of our own physical vulnerability. The same theme is expressed archetypally rather than realistically in Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The Mariner is cursed for callously shooting the albatross, and his curse is only lifted when he sees some ugly water snakes and, as he says, “blessed them unaware.” The moral is spelled out in blatantly tree-hugger terms: “He prayeth best who loveth best / All things both great and small.”
Such empathy is an act of the imagination, possibly the act of the imagination. But is empathy natural and innate, as Rousseau thought, or does it have to be learned? Don’t children have to be taught that other children and animals feel pain and have emotions just as they do? A recurrent image of horror, from Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game to the recent film The Power of the Dog, is that of the child who tortures animals with unfeeling curiosity. We know that such children will grow up to be the psychopathic killers both of slasher films and of real life. In King Lear, a traumatized Gloucester projects such indifference onto the heavens, saying, “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. / They use us for their sport.” H.G. Wells projects this onto the heavens in a different way: it is the attitude of his Martians. Critics sometimes pit Rousseau against the most famous spokesman of the opposing view in his own time, the Marquis de Sade, for whom all talk of natural pity was just a pious fraud. If we look into our hearts honestly, we will admit that what is “natural” is cruelty, the lust—in all senses—for power and dominance, a view that Golding’s Lord of the Flies dramatizes without de Sade’s enthusiasm. Evolutionary psychology admits empathic identification with others, and thus grants a natural basis for altruism, but confines it to family and tribe. Everyone else is “other” and is naturally hated. Christian Agape is a higher love that transcends the relative selfishness of such tribal bonds, which is why Jesus said that to follow him we must hate our family (Luke 14: 25-27). (Not a very appropriate message for Mother’s Day weekend: sorry about that).
We seem to be confronted with a choice between two views of human nature, corresponding to the attitudes that William James characterized as “tender-minded” and “tough-minded.” The tender-minded attitude is that human beings are naturally good, evil being a mere deficiency or lack, the sickliness of a plant deprived of water and sunlight. That being so, evil can be at least ameliorated if not entirely eliminated by a liberal or progressive improvement of social conditions. The most eloquent scientific exponent of such a view is to my mind Abraham Maslow, the humanistic psychologist. The tough-minded attitude is what Catholic theology calls original sin and Calvinism innate depravity. Human nature is selfish, motivated not by love but by selfishness, driven by a will to power. This selfishness is innate, not environmental, present from birth and not the outcome of a bad upbringing. The implications of such a view are conservative: stringent laws and authoritarian rule are necessary to restrain the potential savagery of human nature. These two views fight it out in Shakespeare’s dark and fascinating “problem play” Measure for Measure. Are we then left with a choice: either sentimental idealism or rationalized cruelty?
Either-or arguments are tough-minded; both-and arguments are tender-minded. Each has its limitations. Tough-mindedness is tempted by a kind of macho self-proving attitude. You have to be strong enough to confront hard choices and not think you can have your cake and eat it too. Any talk of unification of opposites is lambasted as “mystification.” This is supposed to exemplify the virtue of not violating the Aristotelian law of non-contradiction. The problem is that life violates it all the time, and of necessity: life consists of what Blake called Contraries, without which, he said is no progression. Taoism is an Eastern expression of the same perspective. The present opposites are a case in point. Human beings need the autonomy, the freedom, that comes from a strong, independent self. They are also interdependent and need an interconnection with others that derives from the identification that we call empathy. Children come into the world with both tendencies. They have a kind of innocent narcissism that does indeed need to be taught about the needs and feelings of others. But they also have an innate capacity for imaginative identification that results in “animism,” subject of a previous newsletter: they bond with everything in their environment, animating it, humanizing it. Affirmation of self and identification with the other: the process of maturation consists of learning to integrate these opposites. Needless to say, this learning process is not completed with chronological adulthood but continues throughout life.
However, the both-and position has its own temptations. The limitations of a hard-headed affirmation of the will to power are fairly evident, and I have been probing at them in the last couple of newsletters. But I would like to turn this time to probe the limitations of empathy. It is so easy to say—or sing—that all you need is love.
Living it is another matter, as we found out in the 60’s: Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young were by no means the only band to preach love but dissolve because its members couldn’t stand one another.
Empathy sounds so nice. But if we are in the position of the Good Samaritan, we are not so much repelled as afraid: afraid of “getting involved,” as we sometimes put it, afraid of an openness that makes us vulnerable, of a need that may engulf us. Nor is this as ignoble as is sometimes claimed: we are not merely being selfish to be afraid of being pulled under by the panic of a drowning person and drowning oneself. Past a point, the need for self-protection is justified. Moreover, there is not merely one victim by the roadside but a succession of them, or many of them at once. Anyone in the helping professions—teachers, ministers, doctors, nurses, therapists—has to develop a technique of professional distancing or risk burnout. There is no end to the need for compassion in this terrible world.
This is what Dr. Rieux means in Camus’ The Plague when he says that to fight the plague you have to have a little of the plague in you. Two years of witnessing healthcare workers burn out like a string of Christmas bulbs have shown us what this means. When we read or hear accounts of mass suffering such as is occurring right now in Ukraine, we hit a kind of mental “mute” button so that our sympathy is damped down to the point where it will not overwhelm us. No one but a god could take on the burden of that much suffering: it is literally unbearable. A compassionate response as a teacher to even a single desperately miserable student can leave you shaken and exhausted, needing to recuperate. Therefore, some academics keep all students at a coolly professional arm’s length as a method of emotional insulation. I have never been able to manage that, nor would I want to, but I am also mindful of the danger of over-involvement. Empathy is not easy, and it is not clear and simple either. At what point to detach is always a question, sometimes a painful one.
Empathy means not only that another person’s inwardness is opened up to you, but you are at the same time opened to the other person. I have read negative responses to More than Human that regard “bleshing” as an invasion of privacy, which I can understand. There is a story that dramatized it to me when I was still in high school, maybe 16 or 17, and I can still remember its emotional impact over 50 years later. “Journey’s End,” by Poul Anderson, is about two telepaths whose minds briefly touch before they lose contact again. The ending, when they finally achieve full communication again, is devastating. There are things that we keep private even in the closest relationship, out of shame. The man thinks:
—I REMEMBER THAT AT THE AGE OF THREE I DRANK OUT OF THE TOILET BOWL/ THERE WAS A PECULIAR FASCINATION TO IT & I USED TO STEAL LOOSE CHANGE FROM MY MOTHER THOUGH SHE HAD LITTLE ENOUGH TO CALL HER OWN SO I COULD SNEAK DOWN TO THE DRUGSTORE FOR ICE CREAM & I SQUIRMED OUT OF THE DRAFT & THESE ARE THE DIRTY EPISODES INVOLVING WOMEN—
The woman thinks:
—AS A CHILD I WAS NOT FOND OF MY GRANDMOTHER THOUGH SHE LOVED ME AND ONCE I PLAYED THE FOLLOWING FIENDISH TRICK ON HER & AT THE AGE OF SIXTEEN I MADE AN UTTER FOOL OF MYSELF IN THE FOLLOWING MANNER & I HAVE BEEN PHYSICALLY CHASTE CHIEFLY BECAUSE OF FEAR BUT MY VICARIOUS EXPERIENCES ARE NUMBERED IN THE THOUSANDS—
The couple mutually acknowledge that “everyone has done the same or similar things,” but “I will not admit to ANYONE else that such things exist in ME—.”
The story ends in “a single thought in two minds”:
--get out. I hate your bloody guts—
Speaking of admissions, I still have the anthology containing this story, and I have just discovered that as a teenager I rated every story as poor, fair, good, or excellent. The budding literary critic, if I only knew. Beside “Journey’s End” I wrote “Best?” I suppose adolescence is a good time to read such a story about private shame, and that is one reason the story had such an impact on me. A reasonable response might be that in a saner society people would not grow up to feel such shame, but in the society we have we wear mental privacy as we wear clothes, and for the same reason. Which brings us back to Rousseau again, who wrote his Confessions expressly to defy the social demand for shame by confessing everything, including that he was turned on as a boy by being spanked by his governess. At any rate, empathy entails openness and vulnerability, and it takes courage or foolhardiness to dare what Yeats called the enterprise of walking naked.
Another reason empathy is difficult brings us back to the social issues of our time, as we learn, perhaps the hard way, that our empathy can be exploited by neurotic or unscrupulous people. Bertolt Brecht dramatizes this in his play The Good Woman of Szechuan, in which the good woman of the title, in trying to be a Good Samaritan not just to one person but to everyone, finds her good nature so repeatedly, flagrantly exploited that she has to invent a second identity, a tough-minded male capitalist whose hard-headed self-interest will protect her from some people’s parasitism. It is recognition of such abuses that causes libertarians and conservatives to refuse all empathy with the downtrodden, calling them “takers” and denying that they are their brother’s keeper. Much of their self-righteousness is phony, an excuse to be self-interested, but not all of it.
Earlier, we located the origins of hatred in a sense of grievance, justified or not, that can be whipped up to a frenzy by a combination of the media and political manipulators. But I think the angry refusal of sympathy, of charity, even of common politeness, also has a deeper motive. I think people are afraid of empathy and the vulnerability it entails, and at least some of the time are inventing reasons to justify their refusal to care. The more defensive people get about their hard-heartedness, the more likely that is to be the case. In dinner-table conversations with certain relatives years ago about immigration, I remember being struck by the volatile feelings that erupted the minute the subject was raised. These were good people in many other ways, but there was never for a moment any expression of rational, regretful sympathy for the plight of people who may be desperate to come to this country because they are fleeing war, dictatorship, starvation. A rational argument might have run something like, “Well, I know these people have a hard life, but I am sorry, I just don’t feel we can afford to open our borders without limitations.” Instead, I had to recognize that Trump did not have to build his wall. The wall is already there in the minds of so many, and it is a wall against feeling, an anxiety against being overwhelmed by a tide of need.
The refusal of empathy begins as defensive, but when it reaches a certain level of intensity it can go on the offense, so to speak. People get angry, or are made to feel angry, because they feel vulnerable, but beyond a point they may discover that anger is intoxicating. It is fun to be angry—it is exhilarating and gives people a sense of power. Hence the bullying behavior of “triggering the libs” and sneering at “sensitive snowflakes.” It is no fun at all to be patient and restrained and respectful and considerate of others. These people who erupt abusively against parking lot attendants and flight attendants—where are their manners? The right claims to uphold traditional values, but civilized politeness is one of those values, as my mother and grandmother would have told them in no uncertain terms. (There: I have honored Mother’s Day after all). It is possible to take a public stand, register a justified complaint, even make a scene with a dignity and restraint that lends nobility to one’s cause and to oneself—as opposed to acting like a spoiled brat throwing a tantrum or a disruptive drunk. But manners and codes of politeness are part of what we call social skills: they are ways of signaling respect for the other. People who throw tantrums in public or become trolls online refuse to recognize the existence of other human beings: they live in a world of narcissistic solipsism in which other people are not real. Only their own feelings and desires are real, and when those are thwarted or criticized, the reaction is indeed that of a spoiled child: “I hate you!”
How might empathy be sustained without being overwhelmed from within and bullied from without? I think that it relies on a certain kind of detachment, very carefully defined. This detachment is more than a selfishness that counterbalances empathy’s selflessness, even if that may sometimes be necessary. It is not mere Stoicism if “stoic” means either an unfeeling numbness or a macho “I can take it” attitude. Rather, it derives from the sense of some mysterious power invisibly at work within both the self and the world. I call it imagination in order to make clear that it is an immanent power and not, or not necessarily, a transcendent supernatural one. If we ask, “invisibly at work doing what?”, the answer is my touchstone phrase: “expanding eyes.” What good does that do, in the face of the world’s grief? Oh, you never know. The imagination is a Trickster, accountable to no one, and Tricksters don’t always play by the rules. The tough-minded attitude asks what happens when this New Age mysticism goes up against real power, against the people who play hardball? Well, there was this young boy named David, a poet and a shepherd—in other words a kind of Biblical hippie—but he had a slingshot. Ukraine is right now teaching Vladimir Putin the parable of David, with the slingshot supplied by the United States and the European Union. But mostly the imagination works as Jesus worked, as one of the helping professions: feeding the hungry, healing the sick, but most of all by teaching, by expanding people’s eyes.
According to Buddhism, we are not capable of compassion until we become detached from desire and fear. This is roughly comparable to Jesus telling Satan that humanity does not live by bread alone, which is the opposite of the kind of religious hypocrisy it superficially resembles, the kind that says “You should have your mind on higher things” to starving people. After all, Jesus fed multitudes of hungry people in his later public career. Instead, it is a statement of detachment, detachment from the anxious neediness that is more or less the default state of the ordinary ego, and a declaration of allegiance instead to something else. For Jesus, that something else was “the will of the Father,” but, as the parallel with Buddhism shows, it can be understood as an internal state, “enlightenment,” rather than as an external God. The goal of achieving enlightenment may sound like some kind of elitism, but that is an elitist misinterpretation. Jesus preached to everyone: the fisherman, tax collectors, and prostitutes got it, or some of them did. The scribes and Pharisees didn’t.
A certain kind of detachment on the part of us tender-minded folk would take much of the fun out of the right-wing game of “triggering the libs,” which loses its effectiveness if the libs refuse to be triggered. This kind of detachment makes deeper sense out of Jesus’s forgiveness of his enemies on the Cross, “for they know not what they do.” There is a wonderful anecdote somewhere of the depth psychologist C.G. Jung being bit by a dog that had just got its paw caught in a door and was traumatized and in pain. Jung just smiled ruefully and said, “My patients sometimes do that.” Mind you, some of the world’s evil people do know very well what they do. But empathy in such cases means a detached understanding that such people are increasingly possessed by the demonic, whether you understand the demonic psychologically or supernaturally, and are becoming progressively becoming monsters, beyond empathy’s reach because they are beyond the human. Sauron, Anakim Skywalker, Tom Riddle who becomes Voldemort, the sorcerer Cob in Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea saga, Jack Torrance in Stephen King’s The Shining. We do not need a hell to punish such people: their hell is what they become. Such monsters can only be exorcised or opposed.
More positively, a detachment that is the opposite of indifference can be the source of a kind of joyous energy and hopefulness even in the face of the worst. To me, the great poetic statement of this faith, if you want to call it that, is Yeats’s “Lapis Lazuli,” a poem that hit me so hard when I was young that I memorized it without trying to. It begins by shrugging off the hysteria of those who have no patience with the arts, with the “palette and the fiddle bow,” for, “if nothing drastic is done,” the German bombers will come and destroy everything. But Yeats goes on to say that those who are “worthy their prominent part in the play / Do not break up their lines to weep. / They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay; / Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.” The poem unfolds into a vision of all human history: “All things fall and are built again, / And those who build them again are gay.” It ends with a description of a work of art: three Chinese sages on a mountaintop, carved in lapis lazuli. Yeats delights to imagine them there:
There, on the mountain and the sky, On all the tragic scene they stare. One asks for mournful melodies; Accomplished fingers begin to play. Their eyes, mid many wrinkles, their eyes, Their ancient, glittering eyes are gay.
Yeats was deeply influenced by Blake, and may have had in mind Blake’s aphorism that Eternity is in love with the productions of time. I titled my book from the same aphorism, because the arts are a form of meditation that teaches us the kind of detachment that recreates both the world and ourselves, and by doing so awakens an empathy that is beyond all fear and hate.
David Crosby, “Foreword,” Baby Is Three, volume VI of The Collected Works of Theodore Sturgeon. Edited by Paul Williams. North Atlantic Books, 1999.
Poul Anderson, “Journey’s End.” In The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction, 7th Series, 1958, Ace Books, 236-46.