Responses

The semester is over, and the juncos have returned to my back yard. One thing I have trouble assessing after teaching my class is whether the students have made any inroads into learning the difference between a fact and an opinion, and argument and a disagreement, an interpretation and an analysis. But a response can be any of these things.

Recently I have been entertained by Rebecca Solnit’s responses (as opinion). She’s made a bit of an earnest-minded internet buzz with her brief essay concerning Esquire magazine’s “80 Books All Men Should Read.” [As an aside, I really enjoyed her early book Wanderlust: A History of Walking.] Her opinion piece on Lithub is smart and funny, and she irked many readers; yet I do not see how anyone can argue with her final paragraph:

…that list would have you learn about women from James M. Cain and Philip Roth, who just aren’t the experts you should go to, not when the great oeuvres of Doris Lessing and Louise Erdrich and Elena Ferrante exist. I look over at my hero shelf and see Philip Levine, Rainer Maria Rilke, Virginia Woolf, Shunryu Suzuki, Adrienne Rich, Pablo Neruda, Subcomandante Marcos, Eduardo Galeano, Li Young Lee, Gary Snyder, James Baldwin, Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez. These books are, if they are instructions at all, instructions in extending our identities out into the world, human and nonhuman, in imagination as a great act of empathy that lifts you out of yourself, not locks you down into your gender.

Roth, Caine, Miller– “just aren’t the experts you should go to” if you want to understand half the human species; I love that tongue in cheek understatement. I also love her list of “heroes,” although it doesn’t hurt that she names among them many of my own heroes. She says she reads and re-reads work that she has opinions about–and admits her opinions may not align with the generally-accepted opinions. Which is fine, since she reminds us, quoting Arthur Danto, art can be dangerous, risky, uncomfortable, as long as it means something.

She does raise the point that “[y]ou read enough books in which people like you are disposable, or are dirt, or are silent, absent, or worthless, and it makes an impact on you. Because art makes the world, because it matters, because it makes us. Or breaks us.” In this way, she reminds us that readers are people who may have perspectives that vary from one another, particularly as to the social, psychological, or artistic merit of a piece of literature. Lolita, for example. That’s one book she mentions that evoked considerable response from Lithub commenters.

Rebecca Solnit’s response to her detractors–or “volunteer instructors,” as she calls them at one point–and her willingness to walk around the Himalayas with a medical team (recounted in a recent New Yorker piece) count as reasons her work has moved to the top of my to-read pile of books. I think I will start with Men Explain Things to Me and A Field Guide to Getting Lost.

 

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Empathy & compassion

quanyin
Quan Yin, bodhisattva or goddess of compassion; the Chinese interpretation of Avalokiteśvara

Sensitive. Or: oversensitive.

These are terms I hear bandied about to describe people who react deeply to anything from wool clothing or sock seams to sarcasm or “charged language.” When I was a child, people told me I was sensitive; initially, I thought that was a kind of compliment, and sometimes that was the intention. The teenager I once was believed that sensitivity made me empathetic and compassionate.

As I matured, however, the term sensitivity took on more negative connotations of the “can’t you take a joke?” sort. Worse yet, the charge of sensitivity came loaded with accusations of narcissism, as in “you take everything personally.” In today’s phraseology, “It’s not all about you.” Under those terms, sensitivity does not resemble empathy.

Empathy is a feeling-response, true. It appears to have a like-kind relationship to sensitivity–but a person must be sensitive to others’ experiences in order to feel empathy; so the similarity’s not as swappable as it first seems. I thought that my feeling-response signaled that I was a compassionate person. Indeed, fiction elicits empathy in me. A lifelong bookworm and early addict to novels, I definitely feel along with the characters of the stories I read. Is it really the experience of others that makes me weep or feel joy as the characters forge through lives such as I will never be able to encounter? Or is it a feeling response to damned good writing?

I ask myself these questions because, given my inquiries into what consciousness is and what poetry does, it seems I have not made clear to myself the differences between sensitivity, empathy, and compassion.

~

My current thoughts on the differences have evolved through reading and writing poetry, not fiction, and through getting older. Nothing like life experience to knock a person’s youthful errors into strong relief.

Here goes:

Sensitivity is the strength of a person’s reaction. That reaction may be physical or emotional and will vary widely from one individual to another.

Empathy always means that one “feels within” another person (from Greek empatheia em- ‘in’ & pathos ‘feeling’); it is an inward response to external stimuli. As Daniel Goleman notes, there are several types of empathy psychologists have identified–here’s a brief article on that topic.

Compassion, while a noun, must be active. I think of it as behavior, as action, as verb in noun form. It is a response or reaction to suffering in others (empathy) that is accompanied by an urgent desire–the word desire isn’t strong enough to convey the feeling–to help alleviate the suffering.

That’s where the activity comes in. Until I feel a desire to act, I am “merely” empathetic and sensitive.

~

Recently, I have begun to recognize that my desire to write poetry is partly compassion-based. Art of any kind is process as well as result, and process is action. Additionally, my career as an educator has compassionate action structured into the job description. There are other ways we–I–can be compassionate in the world. This matters to me.

We can learn from the practice of tonglen: “Breathe in for all of us and breathe out for all of us. Use what seems like poison as medicine. Use your personal suffering as the path to compassion for all beings.” ~Pema Chödrön

And we can live in the world and begin to use our sensitivity to pain, and our sense of empathy, to activate compassion–as a verb.

 

 

 

 

 

Brains on literature

Here’s a brief article that references a small study of how the human brain responds to reading poetry:

http://www.exeter.ac.uk/news/featurednews/title_324631_en.html

“Some people say it is impossible to reconcile science and art, but new brain imaging technology means we are now seeing a growing body of evidence about how the brain responds to the experience of art. This was a preliminary study, but it is all part of work that is helping us to make psychological, biological, anatomical sense of art.”

Here’s another short write-up from The New York Times on a somewhat similar topic, research into how reading literary work (specifically fiction, in this experiment) improves social skills–empathy and the ability to interpret other people’s feelings in particular.

http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/10/03/i-know-how-youre-feeling-i-read-chekhov/?_r=2&

The article says that “after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence.” The psychologist researchers are from my alma mater, The New School for Social Research, and their work connects intriguingly with theory of mind studies.

What makes literary fiction challenging to read is the same thing that makes it so richly rewarding to the human brain: critical thinking is required, inference, active engagement with the text, the need to recognize and validate other points of view than one’s own and, often, to speculate on motives and meanings:

In literary fiction, like Dostoyevsky, “there is no single, overarching authorial voice,” [David Comer Kidd] said. “Each character presents a different version of reality, and they aren’t necessarily reliable. You have to participate as a reader in this dialectic, which is really something you have to do in real life.”

Interdisciplinary understanding of the importance of the arts to human consciousness, learning, and compassion: Am I surprised?