I have a distant but haunting memory of a charity-funded TV commercial showing a child with a body that was hardly more than bones wrapped in flesh. The child looked like a bloated gut with a head stuck on top, with the latter being attacked by swarms of flies. He was surrounded by filth and disease. You could almost smell the stench of shit and death and disease in the air he was breathing.
I did not have a credit card in those days, if memory serves, but gave extra money to my church. That eased my guilt, my sense of duty, but did nothing to help that child. Today he probably exists only in the past, or, worse, if the past no longer exists, he has become nothing more than one of my faded memories.
That is all too sad of course, sadder than language can even hint at, but what is just as sad to me is that I no longer cry when I see such footage. Both facts represent, in some sense, the loss of a human.
So here I am wondering what happened to the part of me that made me cry? I loved that me from so many years ago, but I have no idea where he went.
Did some sort of primal internal mechanism step in to defend my brain against “excess empathy” when it recognized that there’s not just one baby like that, but millions and millions? That if today there are 821,675,232 starving children, tomorrow there will be 836,928,555?
Did years of watching violent movies and TV dramas desensitize me to any suffering I see on screen, perhaps by labeling all of it as artificial, unreal, manipulative? It is manipulative, isn’t it? Isn’t that what we all do, manipulate each other? Aren’t I trying to manipulate you into thinking there was a time when I wasn’t an asshole? Or maybe I’m just trying to manipulate me?
Aren’t I really just talking about the Book-of-Genesis Fall, the point in our evolution at which we withdrew into ourselves, the point at which we became so me-focused that our capacity for empathy shrunk to the size of a mustard seed? But then that begs the question of why I used to have empathy. Or was it not empathy after all, but fear, the fear that I could become one of the children with flies buzzing my head?
Desensitize. What a word. Though it sounds like a clinical prognosis, it also sounds innocent. Yet, by masking the exchange of human compassion for the all-too-human lack of it, it is anything but innocent. Yes, I know that sounds paradoxical, and that it is worded to sound cleverer than it really is, but isn’t it true?
Should I just chalk it all up to tribalism, the labeling of the baby as a them instead of an us? Our brains and our sensory gear let us think of such babies as distant, thousands of miles away, and somehow “therefore” irrelevant. But, if we look at the way things really are, we are individual collections of electrons and quarks, which themselves travel near the speed of light, so the baby’s electrons are practically as close to our electrons as are those of our nearest neighbors. We are all linked together, and it can even be said that we are all one.
Speaking of “we are all one,” do we really believe that? I think not. I think we know it, as a scientific fact, but we do not truly believe it. If we believed it, we would act as if it were true. Besides, a belief that we are all one is just a short step away from a belief that we are all nothing, that we and our universe are just a purposeless quark soup if we are anything. Once you start on that path of non-self and nihilism and the “absurdity of it all” and become inculcated with the views of Nietzsche, Camus, Lovecraft, Cioran, and Pizzolatto, you have no recourse but to embrace the darkness of your nonexistent soul.
Maybe I should just stick with looking for biological or psychological causes, such as the fact that some studies are suggesting that higher levels of testosterone boost mechanistic thinking but also correlate with relatively lower degrees of empathy. So, perhaps I once had lower levels of testosterone, although that seems unlikely given how sex-crazed I was in those days. And, for all I know, the studies I recently read are just bullshit. With so much data in the world, it’s not hard to find correlations, but that sure doesn’t mean we understand causes.
Or maybe, just maybe, it all has to do with the rebel in me. I know that people expect me to be moved by pictures that are so sad, so I refuse to be moved. It’s a way for me to keep other people from controlling me.
No, that’s not it. I’m a rebel, for sure, but not a complete shmendrik. My rebellion typically is of the form that leads to addictions and various neuroses, not against the welfare of others.
Does the fact that I no longer suffer myself have anything to do with it? Do we become less and less empathetic as we gain more and more, as we become increasingly unfamiliar with what it means to be sick, to be poor, to have pain, to suffer, as we lose contact with those who do have pain and money problems and sickness and general anxiety? Some studies would say so, but you can find a study that says anything you want said.
Looking at it less mechanically, could it be that my soul has atrophied from lack of use, just like muscles do when they are not regularly exercised? Do our souls whither away if we don’t feed them and use them as they were intended to be used?
Am I analyzing me so I can find someone to blame for who I’ve become? Perhaps the TV producers for showing excessive amounts of violence and the ravages of war and poverty? Perhaps because the poor are always with us, as Jesus said, so we just become accustomed to poverty as a fact of life for those who inherited it?
Yes, I probably am looking to pin blame, but I am the only one I can legitimately point the finger to. I alone am responsible for my own emotions. I alone am responsible for how I respond to them. I became different. No one changed me.
Writing about it doesn’t change anything, of course. Some would suggest that I meditate, because it has been shown to increase compassion. Maybe I should try that. It’s a lot easier to just continue along a path of passive self-reflectivity, though, and it gives me a bit of a dopamine rush without requiring that I actually do anything.
It is all about action, isn’t it? I recall reading years ago that the late Stephen Covey was asked by a friend for guidance, with his friend saying, “I no longer love my wife … what should I do?” Covey replied, over and over, since this went on a while, “Love her.” Covey explained that his solution was to focus on love as an action, not an emotion, and that once it has been acted long enough, it becomes real in every dimension.
So, can I find my soul again by acting like the old me? Well, partly. Maybe. Otherwise, the old me is lost forever.