I’ve been off line a lot more in the past couple weeks than many people had assumed possible. It has been assumed by many that I was a hard core Internet addict, though I have said all along that the net was merely a means of building and maintaining significant human contacts. Those contacts, on the other hand, I freely confess being addicted to. With non-digital access to one of the most important of these contacts over the past couple of weeks then, my need for digital access as a means of human contact has been considerably reduced.
That has also meant blogging less reliably on my part. But fear not, those of you who have found inspiration from my wandering ideas here; I’m not about to give up this form of self expression and social interaction just yet. I’ll still have a need to imagine a broader audience in the process of crystallizing my more nebulous thoughts in verbal form, and so I’ll still be using this format for that purpose, even if it doesn’t result in any greater artistic, philosophical or economic breakthroughs for me.
In fact there is an idea that has been troubling me somewhat for a bit over a week now that I sort of need to talk through with you all. It has to do with vulnerability, empathy and love; and how all those go together with responsibility, determination and accomplishment. It all boils down to this: in order to feel valuable and successful in life, how much can/should we take total control over our lives, and the lives of those who impact ours?
One profoundly necessary characteristic for the personality of any person who we are going to consider as “happy” or “successful” in the deepest sense of the word is empathy. Empathy is not a matter of etiquette: knowing what is expected of you and behaving accordingly. If anything it is somewhat the opposite –– etiquette being a means of compensating for a lack of empathy –– but that’s another can of worms. Empathy is a matter of what has also been called “social imagination”: being able to picture what effect my words, actions, expectations and regard have on others. It is a capacity to feel what others are feeling.
My thinking on empathy has recently been challenged somewhat by Jeremy Rifkin’s talk on the matter that the RSA Animate people have taken on: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l7AWnfFRc7g. In particular there is his guarantee that “there is no empathy in heaven.” The premise is that empathy involves recognizing the risk and precariousness involved in life, which in turn makes every life, and every moment, fragile and precious. If we were not so vulnerable –– if Utopia were to be realized –– we would not feel sorry for each other; we would take peace, joy and security for granted, and our mutual connections on that basis would be that much weaker. It sort of goes with what Tolstoy said: Happy families are all alike.
Therein lays the paradox: we all want to be basically happy and safe, but we also want to be connected with each other as precious and unique individuals. Is there an inherent contradiction between our desires for security and for empathy? Can we have it both ways, or is it like Nietzsche’s observation about sheep that want to be like eagles –– soaring with grace high above the clouds, just not being so cruel to the furry little creatures eagles swoop down to kill? Is it a law of nature that in order to care about each other we need to have some conspicuous weaknesses to relate to each other on the basis of?
Another relevant issue we are faced with is that of self-determination and control over one’s life. Lately I’ve been reminded of the Billie Holiday classic, “Crazy He Calls Me,” where in her own heart-wrenching style she croons: “The difficult I’ll do right now. The impossible may take a little while.” Love gives us a feeling of invincibility –– of being able to move mountains and make whatever is necessary happen to be with and to please the object of our affections. Even with the added strength that love gives us, we still find limitations to what we can do for each other, and thus it becomes somewhat of a hypothetical question, but it is worth asking never the less: What if we could eliminate all hurt, difficulty and vulnerability from each other’s lives with the power of love? If Rifkin’s thesis holds true, that might amount to love destroying its own strongest foundation: a sense of connection based on recognizing each other’s vulnerability.
More relevant perhaps is the question of whether a really “take charge” person can ever accept the sort of vulnerability that being in love entails; or whether a deep romantic can ever set aside the feelings of angst that bind him or her to others long enough to take charge of situations and create the security necessary for the relationship to flourish long-term? If this is a practical balance question, how does one go about finding a workable personal balance?
My current speculation, which I wish to confirm, is that there is more to love and empathy than Rifkin’s thesis would imply. Nor am I willing to settle for a socio-biological explanation of love as a set of instinctive behaviors designed to increase the likelihood of perpetuating one’s genetic code. Love is a matter of connecting with something beyond ourselves –– ultimately greater than ourselves –– which not only recognizes the preciousness of the endangered, and not only draws us to those who would facilitate our reproductive success in one way or another, but which provides us with a sense of confidence that what we have to offer is worth something and that our existence in this world is justified in terms of something greater than its own self-preservation. Loving and being loved is about finding each of our proper roles in this world, and jumping in with both feet to realize them. Love is, on some level, an inherently spiritual experience. On that level it does not require self-interest or deep angst to be realized: it can be strengthened and perpetuated through its own sense of satisfaction and virtue.
Does that mean that these other aspects are eliminated though? Of course not. Assuming that I am right about our having a spiritual impulse in love, this impulse operates within our bodies which are made out of meat. We are somewhat driven to reproduce, to protect our offspring’s prospects, and to care most deeply about things which we see as fundamentally threatened. I have no objection to caring about others on these levels, be it among others or within myself. But regardless of these premises I wish to strive for the realization of a love which is both strong and selfless.
And yet I still come back to the matter of the balance of empathy and control. The more I take charge, the less room I have for openness to the feelings of others; and the more open I am to the feelings of others, the less in control I am of my own situations. All I can say for sure about this is that my own personal balance probably needs to move more in the control direction, regardless of accusations of “heartlessness” that may get thrown at me every now and again. Others who are dear to me may need to follow Brene Brown’s advice and example (http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability.html) in terms of letting go of some of their control and opening themselves up more to vulnerability. In either case though, I’d like to believe that a sense of love in terms of being part of something valuable in each other would enable each of us to find more of the side of this balance that we may be missing.