After a wonderful give and take today with host Ann Fisher on WOSU Public Radio’s ‘All Sides with Ann Fisher,’ in which I stressed, in the context of my philosophy of childing, that our littlest are bundles of empathy that is often starkly lacking in us adults (and not just in our nation’s President by any means), she shared with me that our exchange made her think of an experience as a child.
Ann related that she’s always been a vivid dreamer, and recalled how once, when a child, she’d mentioned to one of her parents that she dreamed she was walking upside down on the ceiling, and more besides; and she remembered how dismissive the response was to her vivid dream. To this day, you could see not just the disappointment but the sadness on her face over a parent who wouldn’t take more of a keen interest in her precious child’s dream, and all the wonders that might be packed in it.
Our youngest are simply asking us, the oldest, for the same kind of compassion and empathy that we expect from them, and that our youngest so often show with such fullness of heart (after all, it is second nature them them; first nature, really).
Where did we lose our way, though, as we grew older? At what age and stage of adult life (I suspect, as I said on her program, that there are many more stages to ‘adulthood’ that have yet been discovered or distinguished) do so many of us, whether progressive or conservative or impossible to label, do we lose this capacity, become bereft of it, as we become older?
Just in the last 24 hours, I have been at the receiving in of some quotidian but disappointment and all too common acts by adults that demonstrate a lack of any sort real ‘fellow feeling’:
— On my flight to Columbus, the adult two seats over who literally yelled at me, topped off with a sneering ‘geez’ (as in, how stupid can I get) for taking photos out of my window of the Columbus skyline, because the flash bothered him and disrupted his concentration of the video game he was playing.
— And then, on my walk back to my hotel from the studio, the man who heedless rolled his car further and further into the intersection I was trying to cross while he illegally was sending a text message, causing me to have to make a wide berth around him in the street (though I had the right of way), and further causing another driver to beep his horn manically — in ‘how dare you?’ fashion, not at this heedless driver who would’ve run me over, and not out of concern for my safety, but just to startle me and, as rudely as possible, make it clear that I was ‘forcing’ him in turn to make a berth around me.
— Oh, and then, as I was crossing a restaurant parking lot, almost at my hotel, a car entered from the highway with the driver hardly checking her speed, and she almost veered straight into me, so anxious was she to get to the parking space, and so callous was her regard for my safety. I’d even looked to make sure the coast was clear before crossing, but she drove at such high speed, she still almost managed to clip me. No apologies. When I looked her way as I passed by her, my heart racing, all I got was a glare, as in ‘Don’t even think about telling me about my mindless act.’
The guest on Ann’s program in the hour preceding mine had a field day pointing out all the hypocrisies in President Trump. Heaven knows there are many, an embarrassment of choices. But how many of us, as I stressed on the program, look in the mirror and ask ourselves whether we also are hypocrites, whether we genuinely practice what we preach in terms of empathy and ethics? Are most of us guilty of what I call in my book ‘pot calling the kettle blackism’?
I suspect far more of us are than we care to admit. Honesty and humility, of the sort children tend to display, would be of help to us in coming to difficult admissions, if we are to take the lead in setting an example for people of all ages and stages. But it is in short supply, dangerously short supply.
I think of the three people who were so callous towards me in the last day. And I ask: How would they want to be treated in a similar situation? I’m sure far differently. And how did they come to behave like this? Do they ever even remotely think of the example they’re setting, or is it that in the narcissist’s mind’s eye, is that a non-factor? And then I take the more difficult next step, and ask myself: How about you, Chris Phillips? How about your own everyday acts of thoughtlessness? And how often has it been one of your own daughters who has pointed this out to you, maybe even rankling you for a moment before you realizing the truth and the loving motive behind their observation? How grateful I am to have them in my orbit.
It’s the understatement of the century for me to note that I’m not by the furthest stretch the only one who has a sibling or extended family member who lives by the dictum ‘it’s all about me,’ and who will stoop to absolutely any low, without moral compasses, for purposes of self aggrandizement.
All we can do is try to be ourselves the kind of person we would like others to be. We have a lot to learn from Arthur Schopenhauer (and Nietzche, in respects). See what you think after checking out this passage from The Philosophy of Childing:
The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860) argues in his acclaimed The Basis of Morality that morality is based on “the everyday phenomenon of compassion, … the immediate participation, independent of all ulterior considerations, primarily in the suffering of another, and thus in the prevention or elimination of it.”
For Schopenhauer, compassion, or mitleid (fellow-feeling), is intuitively rather than rationally based, and so it supersedes rationality. In his view, all the world’s great religions represent attempts to express this notion of compassion, and what connects all is the shared recognition that human life consists of endless suffering. To Schopenhauer, an act of compassion is no more egoistic than altruistic; rather, one who demonstrates compassion puts himself on a completely equal plane to the suffering person: “I … feel it with him, feel it as my own…. This presupposes that … I have identified myself with the other man, and in consequence the barrier between the ego and the non-ego is for the moment abolished.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, both revered and reviled for his penetrating critiques of prevalent moralities, was deeply influenced by Schopenhauer. Nietzsche nonetheless parts company with him on this matter, and asserts that compassion is a weakness, indeed a vice, rather than a virtue, and as such is nothing more than our demonstration of pity for another person—and to show pity for another, he believes, is the same as showing contempt. Nelson Mandela, for one, could not disagree more with Nietzsche (or agree more with Schopenhauer).
“Our human compassion,” he maintains, “binds us the one to the other—not in pity or patronizingly, but as human beings who have learnt how to turn our common suffering into hope for the future.” His perspective springs from the Southern African humanist philosophy of ubuntu, which translates as “humanity toward others.” Ubuntu is based on the notion that all people are equal—of no greater, but no lesser, importance or value, and that it is only through practicing compassionate acts that we become more fully human.
I loved that Ann Fisher noted that my book is not a prescriptive step by step guide for how to be a better parent. What it is, she stressed again and again, was a “philosophy of life” — a philosophy of a life worth living.
And to me, and Ann — not to mention luminary humanists like Gandhi (who spoke of fellow feeling in the context of the ‘khadi spirit‘,) not to mention our world’s youngest — it is all about fellow feeling, human compassion, and ubuntu. If we are to counteract the epidemic lack of empathy among all too many adults, it begins with us. We have a lot of work to do on the fellow feeling front. I just hope I do my part.