These are tender times. The usual end-of-the-year retrospective ache has been amplified in the aftermath of so many storms, inner and outer. It’s often hard to know whether an ambient mood is the aggregate of personal response to the brokenness we are perceiving in world events or the opposite: a projection of personal angst onto the canvas of the world.
Both, I think. At this time of year, I am always reminded of Paulo Freire’s brilliant insight that rather than a single idea or happening tipping the scale of history, at every moment an ecology of ideas, a “thematic universe,” shapes reality.
Freire wrote that every epoch is characterized by “a complex of ideas, concepts, hopes, doubts, values and challenges in dialectical interaction with their opposites.” This complex, interacting whole—our thematic universe—weaves the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the times.
In some sense, all elements of any era’s potential thematic universe are timeless. “Faith versus reason” has been present in one or another manifestation forever, for example. But in each epoch, the foreground is occupied by themes of special richness and meaning in that moment. Always, they cannot be resolved by the triumph of a single proposition. But a dialelectic can ripen like a seed-pod, spreading its progeny across the culture. When this happens, we feel a holographic saturation: the little world of personal relationship is as affected as is global reality.
This year, I want to mention a couple of opposing forces that appear to me in high relief, striking at each other with flintlike percussive regularity. First is our view of the human subject: the ideal of absolute choice—free will, let’s say—in conflict with a growing body of knowledge about the inbuilt character and limitations of our brains and bodies. Second is our view of human commonality and compassion: the impulse to put a fence around our hearts, admitting only the inner-circles of family and tribe, in contention with an ever-expanding knowledge of the interrelatedness of life and our capacity to widen our embrace.
Knowing ourselves: capacities versus intentions. Over the past year—and a few that preceded it—one of my greatest encouragements has been reading the work of cognitive scientists like Daniel Kahnemann whose experiments illuminate the gap between our ideas of ourselves and the raw material we bring to life.
When we learn about wrongdoing, for instance, there is a tendency to exempt ourselves from the potential it reveals. I could never do that, we say, confidently placing those who could in a category to which we don’t belong. From these writings, I’ve understood how many such susceptibilities are well-distributed across the human race. I’ve been forced to admit that you and I (along with every other human) are also affected by them. They originate in characteristics of mind: “confirmation bias” is the big one. We tend to scan for evidence that supports our beliefs and gloss over the rest. The world is so jam-packed with evidence, it’s easy to heap up confirmation so high it carries the certainty of an alp. Consequently, the history of ideas has a characteristic shape: we’re absolutely sure of something—how else to feel when so much evidence confirms it?—until a new idea offers a better explanation that sends the old one tumbling. When the old idea is pernicious (e.g., that the members of particular social categories—races, religions, genders, orientations—are inferior), false certainties can be written in blood, or at least the currency of great suffering.
Our brains are essentially reactive, constructed to respond to certain stimuli in certain ways. Seeing a shadowy figure enter a nighttime street triggers brain chemicals that convince us danger has been engaged, that our options are fight or flight. Or someone offers a bargain that careful thought would reveal as too good to be true, but the part of our minds capable of careful thought is taking a nap while the part that is all eager appetite handles the steering-wheel. I think of myself as quite self-aware, but I am forced to admit that under certain circumstances, with certain pressures and temptations, I am more likely to go with an impulse than subject it to questioning. Ironically, it’s only by remembering that—something I may find very difficult to do under just such circumstances—that I have any hope of escaping my susceptibilities.
The lessons of science have taught me to try for awareness, and when I fail, to notice that when the fog clears. These are the same lessons many millions learn from spiritual practice, observing the workings of the mind, bringing awareness to the impulses rooted in our animal selves, refusing to grant ourselves the exemption that insists on our own innocence, displacing damage to others. How would our lives change—how would the world change—if we could apply this knowledge, now ratified by both faith and reason?
The scale of compassion: big and little selves. What suffering do we notice? For what suffering do we accept responsibility? Where are we moved to mourn, and beyond mourning, to act? The default setting for human empathy barely needs repeating: me first, my relations, my tribe, my people, and then, in concentric circles, the rest of the world. Yet more and more, our enormously enhanced ability to glimpse the wider world has blurred the boundaries, calling us to extend compassion far beyond the defaults.
I keep hearing people say that their hearts are snagged on the Sandy Hook School massacre in Connecticut, that they are consumed by lingering sadness and shock. “It’s personal,” someone told me. This is not difficult to comprehend. The violence of young and innocent lives erased by an evil rooted in the deep distortion of one man with a gun: the purity of the ache, its airtight insusceptibility to ameliorating interpretation despite the thousands of words dispensed with that intention—these things make it an apt emblem for pointless loss, an apt instrument of personal pain regardless of direct connection to the victims. Have you notice the proliferation of punditry casting authors in the lead roles (the titles follow a formula: “I am Adam Lanza’s”—mother, teacher, shrink, victim, etc.)?
Meanwhile, many voices are raised to question whether this heartwrending loss will also open the gates of compassion wide enough to admit the full weight of suffering, including the pain caused not by one broken man, but by our collective actions. In my previous essay, I wrote about the scale of murder committed with our commonwealth and in our names, asking how “we extend to all of those damaged by our grand self-entitlement to punish others the same compassion that is ignited in moments such as these.” Others ask why such compassion is not offered to innocent victims in other countries such as Syria; or why there is more outrage and organized response generated after the death of white children than children of color.
Sometimes the lens is pulled way back. For example, yesterday, hundreds of comments were posted to Nassim Taleb’s Facebook contention that a much more powerful killer is being ignored:
The press is making us mistake a mouse for an elephant, and an elephant for a mouse. Today, in the U.S., many more people are dying from overfeeding than underfeeding, many more people are killed by excessive comfort than discomfort, and for all the evil of the gun lobby, firearms harm much, much fewer people (<1%) than the corn syrup, cereal, wheat, and orange juice industries. I cannot believe that, in the 21st century, "intelligent" people would mistake the lurid for the statistical.
Does your mind rebel at this? How can Taleb compare corn syrup to guns as a weapon of mass destruction? Is he trivializing a tragedy?
Consider just one health consequence of overfeeding. Diabetes entails genetic factors, but Type 2 diabetes, which accounts for 90% of all cases, is generally triggered by what are called “lifestyle factors,” chiefly diet and exercise. It is expanding exponentionally around the globe as a “western-style” diet replaces traditional diets involving fewer processed foods and sweets. In the U.S., the CDC calls diabetes an “epidemic,” noting that it is the 7th largest cause of death. It has a huge public policy dimension: corn and other grains get the lion’s share of U.S. agricultural subsidy, directly resulting in the ubiquitous presence of high-fructose corn syrup in both adults’ and children’s diets, which correlates to growing diabetes rates. Simply stated, taxpayers underwrite the contamination of our food supply with substances that kill millions, and then bear the resulting health costs and personal losses.
The counter-argument is that there is an element of choice in diet: you have the option to eschew a Big Gulp, but an oncoming bullet doesn’t respond to polite demurral. Yet that truth obscures the extent of our investment in promoting health risks, the extent of our success in spreading harm and therefore our collective culpability. The CDC identifies diabetes as a leading cause in over 230,000 deaths in 2007 alone. In 2011, 31,000 deaths were attributed to firearms.
The gun lobby is about as pernicious as any organized force in our society, and I am glad to see more and more people responding with outrage to things like the NRA’s deranged proposal to put armed guards in every school. I am for gun control; and also for an end to the subsidies and policies that have contributed to the diabetes and other diet-related epidemics. Many of us have expanded the circles of compassion so that addressing gun violence leads directly to addressing other policies that cause many times the fatalities. I am noticing how increasing numbers are calling out the relationship to suffering that privileges the local and immediate and ignores the harm we cause without seeming to care, expanding their awareness to take in the entire planet and our impact on the future of life itself. Within our thematic universe, that dialetic—the little us versus the big us—is gathering force. How would our lives change—how would the world change—if we could apply this knowledge, now ratified by both faith and reason?
Blessings to all my friends who celebrate Christmas as a time of compassion, of goodwill to all. May that spirit suffuse our thematic universe this year. We need the help.
Been listening to a little of the neo-doowop lately. What can I say? These are tender times. Love from me to you, readers: Woody Guthrie via Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. “This Land Is Your Land.”