Empathy in the Face of…

The only actions that seem to carry any value in the face of death are those that reduce the suffering of our fellow persons and those generations who are still to come. How many times have I walked roads paved over and over by the long-dead generous of spirit?

Nature is an unfathomable spectacle, but it is also unimaginably cruel and unconcerned with the matter of suffering. Perhaps the more we attempt to transcend these machinations the more heartbroken we become at our limitations and, ultimately, the cosmic indifference our surroundings hold for these pursuits.

I truly believe that – at our core – our species are meaning-makers, sowing seeds in barren ground, crafting castles out of grains of sand, and searching for justice in a seemingly random cacophony. I think this perpetual dissatisfaction with the natural laws, social hierarchies and the prevalence of pain is perhaps our most arrogant of qualities but, paired with our equally powerful impulse to find significance (beyond any evolutionary purpose) in the spiritual value of ethics and morality, provides us with a uniquely empathetic ego.

This can be found in our ability to see civilisation, community and collective growth in the collaborative efforts of our scattered atoms or simply our capacity to find love in a stranger’s face. We feel pain so we can look to the person next to us, see certain reflections of ourselves and say:

“Excuse me sir/madam/other, I don’t mean to cause alarm but, if you’re anything like me, could you spare a second to hold me close. Please, help me understand, what is the meaning of this enduring struggle?”

Now, how successful this interaction is with those who we don’t, on occasion, share a mattress or a bloodline with is yet to be verified. However, I think we can all recall an experience of infinite value in that connection and understanding and I believe it’s one of polite society’s biggest errors to reserve this sense of communion and physical affirmation to lovers, family, and religious groups.

We’re all trying to grapple with the throes of pain and the sometimes-more-jarring interludes of pure unfettered happiness. But we are stuck with a half-built puzzle, refusing to share the pieces with almost all of our fellow puzzlers, often hoping to find all remaining pieces in the box of just one other.

We were born half-formed and will depart the same if we don’t learn the power of intimate and compassionate empathy. To be human is to be trapped in a perpetual bad date with the world around us, lost in the incongruence between our needs for intimacy or purpose and a universe that simply does not share the same values. All we can do is listen to each other, share when appropriate and help move our world accordingly.

Within these universalist statements there is, of course, the potential for flattening or oversimplifying the diverse variety of experiences and perspectives of those positioned along different sociological intersections. After all, the root of many corrupt and unethical socio-political structures started with an idea (or illusion) of unity and equality: “We hold these truths to be self-evident…”

Modern capitalism can be seen as one of these many dangerous misunderstandings of human need that uses a premise of “human-nature” and “empathy” to homogenize and hierarchize the masses according to one dominant perspective.

This superficial treatment of empathy and “sameness” as a tool to obscure the reality of an uneven playing field or to justify economic inequality is a fundamental betrayal to this communion of being. Real empathy means looking past the bounds of that elitist perspective – putting all of our laws, industry and economy to one side – and truly engaging with those who have fallen through the cracks and whose pain is unheard, unacknowledged, and unacted upon. Only then can we begin to approach the superstructures that sprout around us.

When a large portion of a crop is found to be poisoned, the farmer must re-engage with the needs of the soil before she can sow the seeds of a truly fruitful harvest. I believe this to be true with empathy. Empathy is the soil through which all ideas and connections prosper. If we remain socially-distanced in not just a physical sense but an emotional and spiritual sense, I think we will begin to see both an unravelling of our social lives as well as a crumbling of the castles we’ve built, hand-in-hand, with those precious humans that we’ve all taken for granted.

Hold those who need to be held and listen to those you might be inclined to avoid. They might get the wrong message and they might make you mad but, at a minimum, you’ll get in touch with their humanity and – I believe – a small piece of your own.

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