The Case for Empathy

Imagine a world where people care. Where dignity and respect are a given, and the first rule of human interaction is to treat people in kind. Think of this world for a second or a minute. Hold it in your mind, and then forget it and return to the world we have. A world where we have to fight and march in the street because nearly half the population refuses to accept that certain people’s lives matter because of the color or their skin or view wearing a mask to keep their fellow humans safe as an act of oppressions. Forget the world of dignity, respect, and kindness and picture this one.

How do we heal our souls in a world gone broken and mad? I turn to art. Many people turn to art, I among them. Aristotle said of art, “The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.” Art is not the reflection of the world but how it makes us feel. Art is a representation of our emotions. Aristotle theorized that humans enjoy watching tragedy as a form of catharsis. That we are purged of our pity and fear by watching a fictional tragedy unfold before us. Frederick Nietzsche said, “We have art in order not to die of the truth.” An expansion of the idea of art as catharsis or our path to sanity in a world that will leave us baffled an confused.

For the last year of our lives in this covid world I have often wondered what has happened to empathy and why is it so hard. The philosopher Peter Singer gave a scenario of a person on their way somewhere dressed in new nice clothing coming across a child drowning in a muddy pond. In order to save the child the clothing would be ruined. His point was that almost every person on the planet would dive into the water and save the child without hesitation, but we live in a world where people will not wear a mask to show their compassion for their fellow man, nor will they be willing to submit to a federal background check in order to buy a firearm. For many in America empathy is dead and they proudly dance on its grave in the name of freedom.

What confuses me more than anything about this is the human condition is so easy to understand. I was looking for a poem about child birth last night and couldn’t find it as I couldn’t remember who it was by. The names Wallace Stevens and W.H. Auden stood out to me, but as I looked through their work I couldn’t find it. I thought just now perhaps it was Ted Hughes or W.B. Yeats but I couldn’t find it there either, and now I recall it is Spring and All by William Carlos Williams, but it is too late for that now.

In my desperate search for this poem I remembered but didn’t at the same time I came across the poem Funeral Blues by W.H. Auden and it felt both fitting and foreign. Fitting because of how simply and plainly it describes the need for empathy and the grief of mourning, and foreign because these are things our world no longer understands and if they do there exist many who wish to deny us of them. Think how radical the act of considering the emotions and feelings of another being has become. Think of all the people that stand on the soapbox of false freedom in order to deny you your safety. To read a poem that so simply and skillfully examines the human condition amongst the backdrop of our darkening days is like the shock of an ice cream cone on a warm summer day. Art is our catharsis, our path to sanity, and a reflection of our emotions. Art is the human condition, and Funeral Blues by W.H. Auden captures it perfectly.

The poem begins with the narrator preparing their home for the funeral.

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

The poem itself is so simple it nearly defies literary criticism. It states plainly what so needs stating to render analysis unnecessary. It is setting a tone for what is to come. It is describing the action of one preparing their home to be turned into a funeral parlor. With all that the first four words stand out, “Stop all the clocks,” and in that we find the essence of mourning. The words aren’t to stop the tone or the chimes of the clocks, but to stop the clocks themselves. To stop time, and that is how tragedy and death feel. It is as if time has stopped. All of us living through covid understand that. We have been living life on pause for the past year, and again isn’t what grief is. We give people their time and space to mourn. We allow them to pause their lives because we have empathy and understanding towards their lose and we join them to the tune of muffled drums as the coffin is brought forth.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message 'He is Dead'.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

It is here that the origins of the poem need explaining. Funeral Blues was originally part of a play and written as satire on societies response to the death of a political leader. The type of public display of mourning as described in the second stanza is unlikely to occur for your average person, but it is here where we can have a discussion over the role of artist and intent in art. My argument would be simply put that the artist is the conduit through which art enters the world and the audience is the soil in which it grows in. While the poem is about the death of a fictional public figure our reception to it can be quite different. But let us look at it through the mirror of both. Think about the over 500,000 people that have died from covid. Now think about their friends, their families, their private suffering. The type of private suffering described in the first stanza of this poem. Death is a great theater. We can wear black arm bands and have moments of silence. Send out thoughts and prayers, but these are theatrics lacking in depth.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

And here we return to the personal. Who doesn’t have a loved one they feel this way about. Someone they feel will be there with them and for them always. The loved ones that are every direction in your life and all the days of the week. They are time itself and part of your very soul. Silly when you transpose this onto a public figure but not silly at all when it is your spouse, your best friend, your parent, or your child. Not silly at all when it is someone you thought would be their for a long time yet to come and suddenly they are not.

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

When I read this I think of the Skeeter Davis song The End of the World about a particularly bad break-up, and isn’t the end of a relationship a form of death. In that instants there is the possibility of reconciliation but it is slight and a break-up can cause the same emotions as mourning. Suddenly a person you thought was going to be a part of your life for a long time isn’t, and now you’re left to deal with it and don’t you wonder why do the birds go on singing. This is the same emotion. The same explanation of the human condition. My loved one is gone and with it the world. It is the seminal question of grief. How can I go on when a part of me is missing? I have yet to suffer a grief this profound. The closest I have come is the lose of a pet, but I know for days and weeks afterwards I would reach down to pet the dog who was no longer there. I call my father to speak with him almost every day. He is the first person I call when I need advise. When he is no longer here I know I will feel as if part of my world has been packed up and put away, and I cannot even imagine what the lose of my wife would do to me.

Empathy is the ability to understand the feelings of other even if you have not shared their experience. We live in a world, a society, where saying you have empathy towards others is viewed as radical by some. I cannot fathom their thoughts nor do I wish to sink to their depths. Empathy is what makes us. It is our connection to the world and to our fellow creatures that inhabit it with us, and it is through art that we experience that which we have not and build and strength the empathy within us.

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