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David Foster Wallace On Empathy


“A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. Here’s one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self- centeredness, because it’s so socially repulsive, but it’s pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default-setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: There is no experience you’ve had that you were not at the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is right there in front of you, or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV, or your monitor, or whatever. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real — you get the idea.”

– David Foster Wallace, excerpt from The Is Water

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Occasionally, I’ll read a claim here or there that we learn empathy from reading fiction. While I love reading fiction and I think that most people will agree that there is something of understanding gained through reading about and relating to diverse personalities, I also think we can easily deceive ourselves about how well this serves us. More often than not, it can delude us about our practical capacity for compassion.

If I don’t know how to relate to my downstairs neighbors, is this thing I call empathy valuable? Is assuming I can fully understand someone else’s life experiences respectful of them? Is understanding and comprehension really the goal?

David Foster Wallace goes on to claim that learning to consider others and serve them mentally is the point of higher education, what he describes as being well-adjusted. I have a difficult time knowing what to think here, because I find myself wanting to agree with him and also feeling that empathy, or perceived comprehension of another’s circumstance, is perhaps not the best resource for learning to care for them. Perhaps intellectual assent is useful, but is it the most genuine and natural route to caring?

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Further Reading

Mary Berry Reflects On Her Heritage

Want to change the world? Shake Someone’s Hand!

Wendell Berry On His Children

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For Courage Of Quiet Mothers


Meditate
When the baby starts
With dawn nearing the horizon

Though your bone
Your body
Your very bond aches for rest

For you, oh sweet breast
Hold hope in your open hand
And condemnation in your fist

All life depends on your whim
Though no notice goes
To your hard fought victory

All life seems only to turn against your will
Yet all life peters for lack of your interest
You give life and enthuse

Rejoice and rejoin in happy open-handedness

– M.Landers, June 2014

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Further Reading

Wendell Berry Poem On Children And War

“Gal. V & VII” by M. Landers

“Listen Awhile Ye Nations, And Be Dumb!” by Keats

Vonnegut Says Hate Is What Gets Things Done


“As a member of a zippier generation, with sparkle in its eyes and a snap in its stride, let me tell you what kept us as high as kites a lot of the time: hatred. All my life I’ve had people to hate — from Hitler to Nixon, not that those two are at all comparable in their villainy. It is a tragedy, perhaps, that human beings can get so much energy and enthusiasm from hate. If you want to feel ten feet tall and as though you could run a hundred miles without stopping, hate beats pure cocaine any day. Hitler resurrected a beaten, bankrupt, half-starved nation with hatred and nothing more. Imagine that.

[…]

The members of your graduating class are not sleepy, are not listless, are not apathetic. They are simply performing the experiment of doing without hate. Hate is the missing vitamin or mineral or whatever in their diet, they have sensed correctly that hate, in the long run, is about as nourishing as cyanide.”

– Kurt Vonnegut, speaking to the graduating class at Fredonia College, 1978.
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I would have loved to hear Kurt Vonnegut speak publically. He was apparently as appreciable a speaker as a writer, as he was very frequently engaged. His tone is always one that catches us off guard with encouragement, whimsy, and dark self-deprecation toward the human race.

While I’m not sure that I have seen any evidence of a generation without hate for fuel, I do find his concept here simple, self-evident, and fundamentally understated else ware. Often men have worked entire philosophies off of a basis that includes this theory, but rarely does one actually think about the fact that fear and hate often work hand in hand as our greatest motivators. The great striding leaps of human ingenuity in the past couple centuries have not helped to build up individual security and eliminate worry and hatred as everyone seems always to be hoping they will. They have been fuel for and sparked by the greatest wars and genocides in history.

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Further Reading

What C.S. Lewis Knew About The Holocaust Before WWII

Vonnegut’s Views On Religion And Science

Wendell Berry On Family And The Cold War