I sometimes feel like the world is decaying and crumbling around me—even when, at the same time, I recognize how incredibly fortunate I am in so many ways. I find it hard to square those two competing sensations. It is unexpectedly difficult to acknowledge that horror and happiness can coexist, often at the same time and in the same place—despite the fact that those opposing circumstances are as common as air and water. Guilt plays a part in the dilemma; how can I be satisfied, content, even deliriously happy when people the world over are dealing with painful struggles that threaten their very survival? Of course I realize the simple absurdity of feeling guilt just for feeling good. Yet that simple absurdity, coupled with compassion and fundamental humanity, may be what drives people to try to relieve others’ pain. Every time I read or listen to the NPR special series called My Unsung Hero from Hidden Brain: Stories of People Whose Kindness Left a Lasting Impression, I think about the conflicts between pleasure and pain, joy and misery. This morning, I read an Unsung Hero story about a woman who fell and injured herself on a Washington, DC street as she was on her way to an important meeting. Two strangers came to her aid, tended her bleeding scrapes and cuts, and helped her move on so she could make her meeting. Guilt probably did not play a role in those strangers’ responses to the woman’s injury. But compassion did. And empathy. And the fundamental humanitarian motive that drives us to care about others in need. But as I think about those things that move us to action, I wonder why that desire to help sometimes seems so random. Why do we (some of us, anyway) feel empathy for a stranger who trips on a curb, but that compassion is often absent when we consider families doing their best to escape living hell by crossing the border into this country? One could easily identify a thousand pairs of scenarios that illustrate both empathy and indifference exhibited by the same person for circumstances in which suffering is similar. The question is, of course, rhetorical. I can answer it in a thousand ways. But none of those ways truly get to the heart of the matter. The bottom line is that we just do not know. We guess. We have hunches. We might think we know, but we do not. If we knew, we would correct the discrepancy. Wouldn’t we?
Empathy should not be contingent on our proximity to suffering or the likelihood of it happening to us. Rather, it should stem from a disdain that suffering is happening at all.
~ Clint Smith ~
Here is where the concepts imbedded in my writing in the paragraph above clashes with my own behavior: I scheduled myself for a pedicure this afternoon. I could have, instead, arranged for the money I will spend on the pedicure to be donated for food for the hungry. But if I allow myself to feel guilt for such things, I should insist on feeling guilty for spending money on every indulgence. Better yet, I should simply not engage in behaviors that beckon guilt. If only we all were “saints,” yes? But we are not. We defend personal indulgences in myriad ways, often suggesting that only by pampering ourselves are we able to muster the strength to do the occasional “saintly” thing. It is absurd to think we can be “saints,” but if we completely abandon guilt by abandoning ourselves, we have done good for no one. Not others, nor ourselves. Where is that perfect balance?
I have long since abandoned most television. I do not have access to television channels that will air the Republican debates tomorrow evening (but I am pretty sure I can watch online). Though I do not intend to vote for any of the Republican contenders, I do want to know what they say they would do if they were chosen to be the Republican candidate for President. I suspect the Republican hopeful whose approaches to governance and philosophies I will find least offensive is Asa Hutchinson. But I want to hear from the others. I’d rather watch on a big screen than on my computer monitor, but I’m unwilling at the moment to subscribe to “cable” television and I do not want to go somewhere else to watch. So, I’ll satisfy myself to tune in to Fox News tomorrow evening. This morning, when skimming the news channel websites, I stopped at Fox to see what that propaganda machine is saying; it is far worse than CNN, but that is only because Fox has an ultraconservative slant on “information.” CNN‘s attempt to deliver “information” is just the other side of the mirror. Both are contemptible for claiming to be news channels. Yet, still, I visit them to see what ugly misinformation the two ends of the political spectrum are spewing. Chill, John. Chill. Yesterday afternoon’s conversation about meditation should guide me toward doing more of it.