What lurks in us?
The crown of evolution turns out not to be rational thought, but rather empathy: the ability to see what others are feeling in their own heads and to respond to it. Of course, those who don’t believe in evolution don’t believe in doing that. But then, they don’t believe in rationality either.
Rationality is one of the excellent reasons for empathy-driven social progress, when the evolution of memes is prompted by understanding how other people feel and using that understanding to benefit us all. It is rational to make social progress -- meaning developing a world in which everyone has a place and all of the individual worlds are woven together into a planet where survival at every level is possible. It is irrational to let huge populations of any life form be eliminated out of failure to understand or deliberate destruction that DOES understand but only wants benefit for our selves. Some of us still think that survival is a matter of taking everything for ourselves.
I’m talking about all the life forms, all the territory, and the air -- the basic fabric of life for creatures. Survival of the fittest doesn’t mean the biggest, strongest, most potent -- it means what can survive the circumstances. The planetary circumstances become more and more subtly hostile to humans, in spite of their evolved empathy which has helped them work together to create circumstances that diminish disease and send research vehicles to the moon. We aren’t saving the frogs, the bees, the coral reefs, the acid/alkalai balance of the ocean. This is irrational.
My sort-of denomination has been trying to attract new members and improve their reputation for do-goodery based on 19th century reforms, marching at Selma, and developing principles. They are doing this the high school way: t-shirts and slogans. At least the t-shirts aren't pink, but the slogan is “standing on the side of love.” Every teen can get with that -- there must be a song.
Compassion: does she know how he sees the world?
25 Beacon Street
Why do people want to be do-gooders and why doesn’t it translate into rational provisions for the needs of others? If a minister can't understand the urgent need to move bowels, what CAN he understand? Do we ignore such matters because we think angels don't shit? Politics is one reason. But it’s not enough to have the American flag flying over the front door and be located by the State House with its gold dome, if there is no support downstairs for rest rooms the public can use. Oh, well. The new building has no shrubbery.
Love is an emotion so Hollywoodized and splintered into sex, dependence, and commodified into Valentine candy and diamond rings that it’s pretty much empty now. The internet is jammed with pastel glittery butterflies and clever infantalized ponies and rainbows, all declaring love.
Compassion is often the watch word. It’s taken me a while to realize that compassion is not about the receiver but about the provider. This is why Christopher Hitchens got so upset by Mother Theresa -- it was all about how “compassionate” she was in the many images of her in her plain cotton sari, embracing babies and dying adults. Our own empathy went out to her as we “became” her, and felt the aching desire to help those suffering. We didn’t even look at the faces and bodies of the emaciated people on racks of beds -- who would want to empathically share what they were feeling? Questions about providing meds or preventing starvation didn’t come up until late in her career. And then we found out that our ability to empathize accurately was faulty. Her journal describes a terrible darkness, depression that holding infants did not help. Nor did her fat bank accounts get used rationally to improve conditions.
Can you empathize with this man?
Without scolding him for smoking?
Rational response to suffering is addressed by our nation and our various religious affiliations who send subsidies, food, used clothing, various chemicals produced by our industries. It’s true, as Rev. Bill Holway used to say, that it feels good to give, but that’s about us, isn’t it? It’s sometimes a good chance to get rid of stuff we don’t want: the two worst (but funniest) examples I remember are crates of high-heeled strappy shoes sent to Saharan tribes -- evidently because they were labeled “sandals”-- and tons of canned tuna fish but no can openers, also sent to the desert where no one even knew what a fish was.
Such nonsense is good for the survival of politicians who want to please those who provide generous election donations by disposing of excess production of food or by providing living experiments for pharma corporations. Opportunities for international extortion and blackmail abound when large segments of a nation are dying from malaria or HIV. Empathy never arrives, but the sudden realization that ebola travels by airliner can speed up our meme evolution to at least protect us -- which can only truly be achieved by protecting those interfacing with the diminishing jungle.
Not Mother Theresa
Justice is a more stern and durable source of rational intervention for the common good. Médecins sans Frontieres provides a valiant and life-threatening counterforce to ebola. For once there is focus on the victims -- the engulfing spacesuits prevent us from even distinguishing the doctors from the local practical nurses, their billowing tyvex other-worldly against the black and bloody bodies of the dying, every figure in front of those ubiquitous turquoise walls.
Still, less noble and professional institutions are careless enough to let pirates and profiteers skim off profit for their own survival. What would empathy with the bad guys tell us? Crippled brains, irrationality, desperation, dead hearts. But they DO survive. Up to a point.
Empathy-based compassion is not pretty stuff, often painful, but it offers the real stuff of survival: if not truth, than reality or as close as we can get to it. When Jack Nicholson sneers, “you can’t handle the truth,” he’s really saying we can’t handle empathy, the knowledge -- no, the FEELING -- of what the others are experiencing. Of course, that was a movie character he was playing when he said that. In real life he had no insight into the people who loved him. He didn’t allow empathy to penetrate his personal life even though the work of an actor is exactly that: empathy.
The model of compassion is often mothers, who undeniably must empathically understand what their infants need and who mostly will privilege the child’s survival over their own. But this pattern can become controlling, a capture. A father who is constantly “mothered” instead of partnered, can be crippled. “Love” can be used as ownership, entitlement, justification for imposing goals “for your own good.” Then empathy thins and disappears. The Lover becomes the Joker. And Batman? We hope for justice at least.