About a week after the recent U.S. election, I wrote a post regarding the ways I had not followed the path of the pilgrim during the preceding months. The pilgrim’s path is characterized by kindness, clearsightedness, humility, faith in God’s care, and a “hermeneutic of generosity” (Paul Farmer’s phrase for interpretations that give others the benefit of the doubt). Writing about my shortcomings in this regard has helped me subsequently be less preoccupied with current political machinations and more focused on God’s love for all that he has made. It’s helped moderate my fear and anger. What’s left, though, is still sorrow–sorrow mainly for the “losers”–those who will experience negative consequences as a result of the election–but also sorrow for many of the “winners,” particularly those whose votes were based on a narrow self-interest that had in it no room for concern for the well-being of the immigrant, the refugee, or the foreigner. Some of these winners may be disappointed if the new political order doesn’t deliver on some of its promises to them, but I’m mostly concerned that some might get precisely what they want to their detriment. Benefiting at the expense of people less fortunate than you may please you, but it’s not good for your soul.

a-testament-of-devotionI’ve been particularly struck by something I read recently in A Testament of Devotion by Quaker writer and scholar Thomas R. Kelly. The book was copyrighted in 1941, but the chapter from which the quote came was apparently a lecture delivered to the yearly meeting of Quakers held in March, 1939. Kelly’s topic was “Holy Obedience,” which he introduced with a quote by Meister Eckhart:

“There are plenty to follow our Lord halfway, but not the other half. They will give up possessions, friends, and honors, but it touches them too closely to disown themselves.”

Kelly encourages his listeners to follow Jesus all the way. He tells them some benefits will result, among them holiness, humility, simplicity, and suffering. Yes, he considers suffering a benefit. Some will suffer because of oppression, some because of hardship, and, Kelly seems to think, some will suffer because of the suffering of others. Of course there is always someone somewhere who is suffering. I’ve never become calloused to that suffering, though. If anything, it bothers me now more than ever.

Kelly alludes to a conversation he had with a Hindu monk, who told him, “Nothing matters; everything matters.” I think I’ve been able to attend less to politics the last few months because of one side of this paradox–nothing matters. Yet I feel sorrow because of the other side–everything matters. For Kelly, this included “the blighted souls of Europe and China and the Near East and India.” When he wrote early in 1939 Japan had already invaded China and Europe was arming itself in preparation for the war that started later that year. Kelly spelled out the implications for those who sought to follow Jesus the other half of the way:

“In my deepest heart I know that some of us need to face our comfortable, self-oriented lives all over again. The times are too tragic, God’s sorrow is too great, man’s night is too dark, the Cross is too glorious for us to live as we have lived, in anything short of holy obedience. It may or may not mean a change in geography, in profession, in wealth, in earthly security. It does mean this: Some of us will need to enter upon a vow of renunciation and of dedication to the ‘Eternal Internal’ which is as complete and as irrevocable as was the vow of the monk in the Middle Ages.”

Our time is perhaps less tragic than his. Or perhaps not–“the blighted souls” of Syria are being devastated by war; suffering humanity is turned away at many borders; nations exchange threats; nuclear weapons stand at the ready; seas rise from ice-melt as the world warms. I’m less inclined than I used to be to compare the miseries one time to those of another. All times are too tragic; God’s sorrow is always too great; man’s night is always too dark. And there will always be those who are untroubled by such realities and those who respond with the renunciation and dedication that Kelly called for.  The more thought I give to the pilgrim path, the less I’m able to ignore what transpires in the world.

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I’ve been thinking some about empathy recently. I read an article written a few years ago by Paul Bloom arguing that empathy is an inadequate guide for morality.  I also ran across an Atlantic article by Coner Friedersdorf about barriers to empathy in an age of social media. Finally, in reading the Passion account during Holy week, I was reminded of Jesus’ empathic response upon entering Jerusalem. This post will focus on the first of these sources, Paul Bloom’s account of the limitations of empathy.

Bloom, a professor of psychology at Yale, describes empathy as being “parochial, narrow-minded, and innumerate.” In other words, we are more likely to respond empathically to those like us, we ignore most instances of suffering, and our empathic responses aren’t proportionate to the number of victims. Bloom notes that empathy is easily evoked by the presence of an identifiable sufferer–Baby Jessica, for instance, or Natalee Holloway–but is less likely to occur if there is no tear-stained or otherwise troubled victim. If empathy is our only way of determining what problems we care about, the absence of such a sufferer may leave us indifferent to important issues. Will Californians care about the water crisis if no one is actually thirsty, for example? Will we address climate change when the victims are mostly those who haven’t been born yet?

Bloom acknowledges that experiencing some small measure of empathy does motivate us to help others. He thinks we have enough empathy for this purpose, but are instead lacking in good sense. Thus, tons of toys were sent to Newtown after the school shooting there, even though the town officials had no use for them and asked that no more be sent. Yet children are suffering in countless other ways–hunger, homelessness, abuse, sex trafficking, pollution–and most of us don’t feel moved to help in any way. Rather than increasing empathy, Bloom wants us to increase our deliberation and calculation concerning the needs that surround us.

I wonder, though, whether Bloom isn’t thinking of empathy too narrowly. Primatologist Frans DeWaal, in The Age of Empathy, distinguishes between the basic responses that serve as a foundation for empathy even in primitive mammals (mimicry and emotional contagion) somewhat less basic responses (concern for others and consolation of those in distress), and the advanced capacities that only humans and a few other species are capable of (perspective-taking, helping targeted to the sufferer’s needs). Aren’t the limitations that Bloom describes largely characteristic of empathy shorn of these advanced capacities, that is, without sufficient perspective-taking or properly targeted helping?  The more advanced empathic capacities would for the most part keep us from sending toys where they aren’t needed or rushing to disaster sites unequipped to offer help.

I have not done well recently at providing relief for those in distress (or, as Bloom would have it, at addressing the larger societal issues that are impacting or will impact the quality of life, even if they don’t produce clearly identifiable victims). I did much better when I was a caretaker for my father during his last few years of mental and physical deterioration. Since his death, all I’ve done is make an occasional donation to organizations like World Renew and Christ House. Is my inaction due to lack of empathy? Or am I just not deliberating carefuly about how best to help?

In the past several months, I have in fact deliberated some and have done some planning. I know where the local food bank is, and how to volunteer. I am familiar with a local homeless ministry that would welcome my help. Why haven’t I taken the next step? I’ve told myself it’s because I’m busy. I’m starting to think that it has more to do with insufficient empathy, though. I know there are hungry and homeless people in the community, but I haven’t met any of them personally. When I think of them, my emotional response is less an empathic ‘feeling with’ them in their suffering and more a dull guilt over having pushed them out of my mind.

So, my plan at this point is not to deliberate more about why volunteering would be a good thing. Instead, I’ll regularly bring to mind images of the homeless or hungry and think about what it must be like to be them. Will that produce sufficient empathy to get me to do something for them? We’ll see. I just know that thinking about what I could do hasn’t gotten me anywhere