15 June 2013

Fierce Individualism and Empathy, Like Waves in an Ocean

I've wondered about empathy in this country of fierce individualism. Elizabeth Cady Stanton gave this really fascinating speech in 1892 titled "Solitude of Self," and in it she argued that women ought to be their own persons, not merely relational beings who were defined only as mothers or wives. It's a perfectly persuasive argument, one that was, for its time, a matter of speaking truth to power, of stating what seems obvious now but ever so revolutionary then. (Women with their own lives, aspirations and goals?)

Her notion that one's life is one's own was not particularly novel; what was new was the notion that one's life was her own. I love that notion. I love the thought that, in the end, you are free to break with your religious leader or tradition, your head of state or type of government, even your spouse or parents if that is what it takes to become who you are waiting to be. That's the way of progress. We would all still be pagans wandering around in animal skins, lucky to make it to 30, if not for this impulse to break away from tradition and even our group to create something different and possibly even better.

But this tendency to separate us from others can also make us less empathetic. We're individuals, sure. Sort of. It's also true that humanity is some probabilistic smear of potential and we - in our own life - are just one sort of random manifestation of that. It seems to me that bad religion and bad philosophy and bad policy all have similar origins: the belief that "they" are different from us, don't aspire to the same things, conditions, and relationships that we do. So it is a weird thing to find the balance between defining our own life in solitude but still retaining a notion that we're not really different from anyone else. Maybe ocean waves are a way to think about that.

It is true that you are unique but perhaps only because of the inevitability of no two people's lives being caused by the same mix and timing of circumstances, genes, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, purpose, impulse, physical events. So perhaps the way one threads empathy and individualism is to be true to your own individual path, no matter how much that seems to bring you away from the crowd and to also realize that while your path may be different from that of another wave you are still a part of the same ocean. We're distinct from other people in the same way that waves are distinct from one another. And if thinking that we're a part of the same ocean doesn't give us a sense of empathy, it's not clear what would. It could give us empathy twice: once as we break away on our own path and again as we watch someone else do that.

And that's not just philosophical. It's practical. It does little good to be rich if everyone else in the neighborhood is destitute and it's not safe to go outside. We're in this together. And what is this that we're in on together? Well, it's not an ocean. Curiously, what we all seem to have in common is that fact that we find ourselves on individual paths that simultaneously break away from the group at the same time that we're defined by it. And that's the paradox of waves: no matter how violently it breaks away, a wave is always just the ocean.

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