#38: Radical Empathy

If there is one thing that I have seen missing more and more in the world it is the willingness to take into account the feelings, thoughts, and perspectives of another living being. Too much of what is going on around us seems more and more built on the rejection of the perspectives of others.

Maybe technology is to blame. Maybe it is modernity in general. Maybe it is the lack of education in philosophy, theology, history, other cultures, anything that would communicate that your way of thinking and feeling is not the only way of thinking and feeling in the world; and even if you might think someone else is deeply wrong, you need to check that impulse and accept the – very uncomfortable – notion that to expect others to agree with you is rather self-centered.

We can only truly engage with others once we accept, even embrace, their otherness. We are all different. We are also all the same in many ways, but we are mostly the same in not being the same. How I see the world is surely not how you see it, and that is sometimes sad, sometimes disturbing, but it is also fantastic. How boring, how one-sided a world we would live in if everyone thought and felt like us.

This understanding, and this embrace of the other, this connection, this empathy, all this is helpful in guiding our own path through a world that is not centered around us. But it is also teaching us another thing that is in short supply nowadays: Humility. Recognize your limitations, and accept that you are not alone in the world. What sounds banal can apparently be difficult. How does what I do affect others? How can I learn from those I completely disagree with? How can I see myself, as an individual, as a part of a community of individuals? How is that enriching us all, but also myself?

This empathy needs to be radical; it is a form of love, of unlimited love. We indeed should work at being radical in our empathy, radical in our compassion, radical in our love – because we can only be accepted ourselves by the world if we accept it, and everyone that lives in it, in return. Otherwise, we will just be in a bubble, a cage of our own choosing; unable to truly be in the world, we would be building a prison for ourselves, seeing disconnection where there needs to be connection, seeing hopelessness instead of hope, seeing difference instead of commonality.

This may be a bit preachy, but so be it.

#15: Happiness

I have struggled all my life with some form of sense of mortality and the definite sense of an ending. That is, I guess, due to a Catholic upbringing, in which the theme of death is permeating everything, albeit counterpointed with resurrection. I have not always been able to reap the benefit of an unwavering faith that G-d will take care of me just as I wish; because I do not want to presume to know what G-d might want, or to even dare ask G-d to intercede on my behalf. (I use the Jewish spelling of G-d to indicate that we cannot know what “God” actually is).

Life thus consists in hope, but not certainty, that things may well turn out well, but also in the awareness of the struggle that things do not just magically fall into place.

There is also the medieval “Wheel of Fortune” idea, so popularized by the Carmina Burana, which tells the tale that our lives will be favored by the fates some days, and other days not, and that high and low, rich and poor, will suffer from Fortune’s wheel. Breaking the wheel – the utopian notion that was Daenerys’ hope in Game of Thrones – is impossible:

However, hope may lie in realizing and feasting on the punctuated moments of happiness. Akhnaten did have a good little run, as depicted in Philip Glass’ Opera. At the height of his power, he invents monotheism (pace Freud, S. (1939). Moses and Monotheism: Three Essays), and enjoys his triumphant moments as the founder of a revised Egyptian religion, whose traces will probably survive as one of its followers, Moses, carries it with him when fleeing oppression in Egypt.

Yet joy does not last, and as Akhnaten’s realm falls, his happiness comes to an end. But it was real – in the years that he indeed was the new founder of his religion:

Just because the past is difficult, the future unseen, and the present stuck in the uncomfortable middle, this should not prevent us from enjoying the happiness we can make in the meantime. It is hard, excruciatingly hard, but possible, every day, to carve out a moment of transcendence, of divinity, of spirituality, of utter joy, of ecstasy, and of shameless undiluted humanity. Whatever darkness may have befallen you today, cast it out for a few moments, and remember, this is your life, and you control your reaction to it, so that, in the end, with hope, you can have peace.

I guess this was a very strangely Catholic post. Oh well. It’s Easter, why not have some hope!

#12: We Are All Just Human Beings, and We Are All Predictably Stupid

We are all just human beings, and we are all predictably stupid. It is easy to judge strange behaviors in times of Coronavirus, but we should not be surprised. This is how human beings have always behaved in the face of an “invisible enemy,” as President Trump so descriptively calls it. We cannot see it. We don’t even know whether we have it. We don’t know whether we are in danger, because all we have is statistical knowledge, and symptoms of the disease show themselves very late, but you are infectious much earlier.

At which point should we realize that life, as it was, is over for the time being? And if it is not over for the time being, it could be over, over over, permanently over for far too many people to have this be a trivial matter.

People congregate even though they should not. People visit aging relatives in virus-infested areas even though they should not. Everything we should be doing goes against everything we have been doing, all our instincts are being violated, all our routines, our most human self denied. To be human is to be gregarious, tactile, close, and social – at least for most. But even the most antisocial would appreciate closeness with other antisocial people. Like likes like.

It is spring, and it is beautiful outside, and yet, we are supposed to distance ourselves. Shopping becomes an epic quest just as much as an ordeal. This sucks. It is not fun. Blessed those in large enough houses even with some greenspace living with people that they actually want to be with. That’s not a given. If you chose to be with the wrong partner, now you’ll know.

We could solve this probably easily. But we all need to be in it together. But we are stupid. Individually, we are stupid if we insist on carrying on as before, or if we were unprepared, or living with the wrong crowd. Systemically, we are stupid if we have not understood that people need to have a decent space to live and work, that you have to have protections, and that your economy needs certain buffers and protections to be able to survive a prolonged ordeal. We should also know how to make critical stuff at home, and that we need to stockpile stuff. Hospitals must never again be underfunded, doctors and staff never again underprepared and underprotected. This is bare life, at the barest.

In the future, we will all have learned from our mistakes, and none of this will ever happen. Entire articles and eventually books will be written about the transformative effect of Coronavirus, and how it changed the world forever, and how it brought home the message that we should take care of nature if we want it to take care of us.

Bullwinkle. We are too stupid to do this.

We will go back doing what we always have done. All those people that apparently had to be told to wash their hands will probably go back to not doing it, even though there are other nasties out there. We will again defund our healthcare system, and most of all, destroy our environment even more (especially those darn animals carrying all those viruses), and yearn for a robotic workforce that can never be sick. They will be necessary, because all this working from home may give some people the idea that we should just pay people for being themselves, and have those robots do all the work.

We will be just stupid enough to do this. Come on, man! Stupidity, after all, is our only true renewable resource. Look at the beaches, the parks, the private parties, some churches, even some countries, and you will see that we may be from the “homo” genus, but the “sapiens” in our name is dripping with irony, so much so that it is almost sarcasm. The “wise” human, sure, very funny.

Ain’t gallows humor grand?

#3: Don’t Know What to Say

I have absolutely no clue what I am supposed to say. Maybe I should not be saying anything. But I am thinking something. I am thinking and feeling a lot of things during the day. Thus there could be something to say. Could, should, supposed to. Expectations – they are the real problem.

I live alternately in Germany and in Oregon, United States. I should be free to say what I want. I should not fear repercussion. Critique, fine, and everyone’s a critic. That’s how you grow, or learn to live with something or ignore it. Whatever.

I do not have outrageous opinions. But I believe in the value to weigh and test different and sometimes even opposed opinions. I have convictions, well, maybe one. The dignity of life is inviolable. Stolen right out of the German version of its constitution. Deliberate, willful denigration of others, let alone physical harm to them, is anathema, not good, not something I intend to do. Live and let live. But also, be aware intolerance and bigotry arising. But always seek the truth, no matter how difficult. And always be aware that you will be making mistakes.

I guess I have said something after all.

#2: A Fresh Start

I’m trying something new again, again, again. The web site is a bit old (philjohn.com), and it had a diary section, but then technology changed, I got a blog, abandoned it, and now I am trying again.

This will be a place to share some observations and thoughts on politics, religion and culture, to test out some ideas, and to – in general – just get in the habit of writing again, as taught by Forrester:

I hope we’ll have some fun, some depth, but always a good and civil exchange here to mutually learn and better ourselves.



#1: Holidays


How do we each year get caught up in a frenzy over holidays?

Whose holiday, what kind of holiday, how to fill the time, whether and what to give to whom – and in the end, all we want to do, is to rest – but then, it’s back to work.

The idea should be simple (I know, it never is, and the idea of simplicity is always kind of utopian): The time which is marked in the Gregorian calendar as the end of the year roughly coincides with the darkest days in the year. If you find a way to bring some light into the darkness, this makes these days palatable.

Also, if you are ending your calendar at that time, it makes sense to take a breath and get the sense of being able to start over in the new year, after contemplating on your successes and failures, and spending time with those you care about. You may even finish some work that needs finishing, but do it in the comfort of holiday cheer around you.

You need no religion for that. It doesn’t necessarily hurt either.

Actually, in times like these, the story of taking in a small family in need of a home, can be instructive in how we position ourselves collectively, as a species, towards questions of home.

There are refugees needing welcoming homes right now. Are we not supposed to take care of others? Sadly, not everyone values family – even though that should be the basic connection that should be taken for granted. You should be able to feel at home, at home. You should also be able to think beyond your immediate circle and see as fellow human beings those who need help. That does not need to mean you need to do big things. But you could at least endorse the principle of caring humanity, and call out those that don’t support that, as who they are.

Our planet, our very home, needs us to take more care of it. Are we not supposed to be stewards of the land, rather than rapacious exploiters? We need the earth to live, and we do need materials, and other lives to live on. I am not a vegetarian, and I am aware of that. But do we not need to make sure that what we leave behind can sustain not just the present but also future generations, even if they are not your own?

In the end, the holidays could indeed be about home.

Again, you need no religion for that. But maybe, looking at a nativity scene, and just seeing a family in need of a good home, surely doesn’t hurt.