On Compassion and the Imagination

“I can’t imagine how you feel.”

“I can’t imagine what it’s like to…”

—lose a child
—get cancer
—nurse your mother through dementia
—be deserted by your spouse

Actually, I can imagine it. I really can. I may not know how you feel but I can certainly imagine it. Imagining it is the only way I can muster the compassion, empathy and identification with your suffering that allows me to offer you comfort and solace in your time of trial.

Imagination is not only at the root of all art and religion, but it also provides the  foundation upon which all true human relationship is built. Even in strictly utilitarian business transactions devoid of any deep personal interchange, the capacity to imagine and identify with the other’s interests is what allows for fruitful, mutually satisfying negotiations.

So please, let us be done with the kind of well-meaning but essentially trumped-up, misplaced humility of claiming we can’t imagine our way into the life of our friend or loved one. This assumption serves no purpose other than to (inadvertently) increase the sense of isolation and despair they feel in the wake of their tragedy.

What I want and need in my pain is for you to bring all the imagination you can muster in feeling it right along with me. Please, please, please: Bring it on!

I need you to share in my suffering just as I would try to share in yours. Surely you can see and identify with my pain, because if you can’t, why are you here trying to console me? The attempt would be rather feeble and useless, wouldn’t it?

 

Absent the kind of moral imagination required to feel compassion for others, to identify with the pain they are feeling, we may as well all stay in our rooms when tragedy strikes, stewing in our inability to reach across a chasm separating our individual experiences. What do humans tend to do instead? We almost instinctively come together, flying in from across the country to hold each other, put on water for tea, cook up a pot of soup. Then we commence listening, if need be, long into the crazy-making night as our friends or family members try to make some sense of their fate.

Back in 1967, William Styron’s novel The Confessions of Nat Turner brought him both the Pulitzer Prize and a veritable flood of scathing criticism from those who considered it presumptuous and inappropriate for him to imaginatively inhabit the mind and background of the black slave Nat Turner. Turner led a historic revolt in 1831 that resulted in mass murder of both whites and blacks and his own subsequent death by hanging.

Styron’s largely sympathetic treatment of Turner nevertheless raised the question of whether a white Southerner should even dare write from within the experience of a black slave. To which the only rational response, it seems to me, would fall along the following lines:

If all our imaginative storytelling, all our reaching out to understand the life and times, loves and losses, of another person depends on us literally sharing their same experience, race or nationality, or the same type of loss, then fiction is impossible, compassion is impossible, any reaching out to embrace others in human solidarity in all but the most superficial terms is impossible.

If we negate the capacity of the imagination to feel intensively if not almost wholly into the life of another, we should commence to root out all fiction from our libraries and burn it in a pile labeled “Presumption.” Who are we to think, as writers or merely fellow humans, that we can identify closely with another in their pains, heartaches and longings? (Dear Reader: Please imagine a long audible sigh here…)

Truly, in our imagination lies our communion, our relationship, our shared humanity above and beyond all labels, ethnicities, and experiences. To be human is to suffer, and in our suffering, we can all be as one, shorn of false barriers that would keep us as the islands the poet John Donne knew us not to be.

The contemporary novelist Ian McEwan addressed this theme in a soulful reflection on the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks that is worth another read a dozen years later:

“Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion and the beginning of morality.”

And in closing, similar thoughts, differently rendered, from the early 19th century romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley:

“A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination.”

***

Ian McEwan’s meditation on 9/11 can be found at:

(http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2001/sep/15/september11.politicsphilosophyandsociety2)

Rotating banner photos top of page courtesy of Elizabeth Haslam, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/

6 comments to On Compassion and the Imagination

  • Dennis Ahern  says:

    So we're back to Quentin Tarantino. How might that be? One of the big criticisms I have heard of Django Unchained (which I have not seen) is "how dare he presume to speak for the black slave experience?" Well that was nicely answered by the above.

    I lost my mom just before this last Thanksgiving. It had been creeping up on us for some time so I always felt at peace with the process as it unfolded. But I was quite surprised at how many friends, many of whom I knew were aware, made no mention of her passing when I first saw them after it had happened. I suppose it's an awkward elephant in the room to many. I was not in any profound distress, but had I been, I wonder whether the silence might have seemed more isolating. I have long handled these situations by trying to catch someone's eye, or possibly shake their hand and offer a sincere "I'm sorry for your loss" and then let the moment be. Needs, if they can be expressed, can unfold from the silence. Maybe a month after my mother's passing I happened to be with another friend who had suddenly and unexpectedly lost his father. I treated the moment as I always try to, and we had a very nice 20 minute discussion about his struggle to come to terms with the loss. Sometimes two human beings standing together and saying or even thinking "dammit to hell, this is tough to deal with" is enough to enter a shared state of grace. The best we can do.

  • ahidas  says:

    Yes, Dennis, losing a parent is akin to suffering a (psychic) tsunami, so it is rather discomforting to have someone who knows you not mention it as they walk around the wreckage of your home, pretending it is all intact. For all the shelves sagging with books on grief and loss, we're still not too good with just facing them head-on and offering our simple acknowledgement and presence. If we were, Hallmark wouldn't keep their printing presses churning as they do…Also: hadn't thought of Tarantino channeling the Styron controversy, thanks for that!

  • JP  says:

    Interesting. Brings up a lot for me. When someone says to me "I know exactly how you feel," I cringe. "No you don't! I'm ME and you're YOU, damn it! You know how you feel, but you don't–you can't–know how I feel." For me, when tragedy strikes, words or imagination fail. For me, it's a hug. A touch. Eye contact. One's intention. Acknowledging the obvious. It's when another is vulnerable, transparent, present enough to just be with me and MY tragedy, My grief, My angst, MY feelings. Being with someone who's not trying to make me feel anything other than what I'm feeling, that's what matters to me.

  • ahidas  says:

    Yep, JP. It's this syndrome: "So your baby just died and your house is getting foreclosed? I know exactly how you feel! I had a hangnail last month and it was just horrible!!" That said, empathy and sympathy go a long way in helping us understand each other in this world, and they pair up really nicely with your hug-touch-eye contact…

  • Dennis Ahern  says:

    Maybe you reach a certain age of maturity when there is no longer the desire to "make it right". The young, God love 'em, think that The Big Problems can be made right with enough effort. And don't we need people like that or we may not have a black president today. When I was younger I might have been apt, JP, to "know how you feel". Or fancy I did. Which of course I never could, not really. When my mother passed I really didn't want anyone to know how I felt. A simple acknowledgment that one is sorry for the circumstance of another is a great start. The ability to be with someone in an unguarded moment is an all too infrequent human experience. Nothing to fix. You can't fix what is unfixable. No sense can be made.

    A nice thought provoking essay Andrew.

  • Kevin Feldman  says:

    Greetings fellow "traversers" – I just returned from 2.5 weeks in Indonesia, the last 7 days in Bali, a Hindu island with a significantly different take on life in many respects (at least as I managed to put some of this together thanks to our lovely driver/now friend/extended family member TuDay)

    – attending a cremation ceremony at TuDay's village – about 100 people of all ages, part Irish wake, part wedding reception, and all funeral – caused me to reflect on this notion of being with one another as persons, in the moment, not trying to add or subtract anything, just sharing the moment… the villagers were so open/curious/appreciative (I think) of our presence-interest… yet nothing gained or lost in any traditional sense of material exchange… my wife Denise & I were both very moved… catching up on missed essays – all interesting, this rang my bell… by the way, I am having a terrible time sleeping (jet lag hang over) and on my 3rd day of serious intestinal upheaval – do you "know how I feel"… 95% of my attention has been at the most banal level, thanks for a few minutes of needed introspection and attention beyond my little world!

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