Yesterday I heard the news about a seven year old girl being washed off the rocks at Thunder Hole in Acadia National Park. Though she and a few others were rescued, she died at the hospital, a victim of the surf from Hurricane Bill. In the paper today was a story about a local man who is pleading guilty to manslaughter. Apparently he was watching an 11 month old and, driven crazy by her screaming, hit her in the stomach hard enough to kill her. He then tried to cover it up by claiming she fell down the stairs. Also, he seems to be devastated by the event, and allegedly has contemplated suicide.
When I heard the news about the seven year old, I closed my mind and made a picture of a young girl, about Ryan’s age, excited to see the high waves at one of the most beautiful national parks in the country. Her family was likely in vacation mode, relaxed, and not even considering that there could be danger at this usually serene park. I imagined what it was like for the parents now, trying to cope, the girl’s shock, fear and pain as she was mortally wounded, and the emotions of the rescue workers and doctors as they tried to save her. Did she have siblings, are her parents still together? I don’t know, but I imagined what they might be experiencing. As I did that, I made no effort to prevent my emotions from feeling that pain, or tears from coming into my eyes.
I can shut off emotions. I’ve learned that if I think abstractly, remind myself of statistics, and put things in a different perspective, I could hear a story like that and think “oh well, that’s life. People die in accidents every day.” I mean, I teach about the Rwandan genocide which killed nearly a million in 100 days, Stalin’s gulags with 20 million dead, or Mao’s industrialization plan for China that lead to a famine which killed 30 million. People are starving daily, children are orphaned thanks to AIDS throughout Africa, children are kidnapped and sold into sex slavery, and in war zones children face death and injury daily.
So if I think in those terms, I can completely avoid any tears or sorrow over a news story about one seven year old. Yet I do not. I choose to let the emotions come forward, feel them, examine them, think about what I would do if something happened to my child, and let the tragedy affect me. Long ago I made a conscious choice not to shut off my empathy in cases like this.
I do so for two reasons. First, I want to know myself and my emotions. If I keep them bottled up, and abstract away chances to really think through the emotional meaning of an event, then I will hide a part of myself from myself. I realized that if I did that abstraction thing, after awhile it would become second nature. I’d never really feel emotion over something like the death of one stranger; at a logical rational level it’s meaningless. At least she had a good life (I assume) for seven years, unlike seven year olds butchered in third world war zones. Soon, though, it would be natural to turn off all empathy — I could abstract away every circumstance and event, and coldly yet rationally accept “that’s the way the world is,” or “their choices brought about the consequence.” I might even fool myself that such an ability was “strength” and that those who felt emotion were being “weak.”
Yet that abstraction is the easy way. It’s also dangerous. If you hide your own emotions from yourself, then you may not understand what’s happening when a tragedy in ones’ own life forces unexplored emotions to the surface. One time after my first son was born, I thought about what would happen if he were abducted or killed in an accident. I went through it in a way that literally had tears running down my face (and hoping my wife wouldn’t wake up and wonder what the hell I was crying about). Few people put themselves through that kind of experience, but I felt it necessary to explore how I would react and think. Of course, I knew that it hadn’t happened, but oddly enough in the emotion of that kind of exercise reality isn’t always as strong as imagination. To break out of it, I had to force myself back to reality. I think, though, I know myself better because I don’t always shut down emotion. If I’m in public I’ll do the rationalizing/abstracting thing quite often to avoid embarrassment, but otherwise I let myself feel.
Another reason is that I think it has an impact on how I look at ethics and choices in the world. Take war. For many people war is often chosen as a reaction to an evil leader, or a threat from a strange civilization or ideology. The emotion there is fear, and war is abstracted into simply an act of providing security or implementing justice. Yet for me, my first thought is the emotion of the people who will be killed, the human tragedy that war entails — especially in an era when 80% of the casualties are innocent civilians. This causes me to view such things differently than I otherwise would, and makes me prone to oppose war and look at human ethics before abstract interest.
Of course, one could accuse me of mushy thinking — consideration of the suffering of innocents might blind me from seeing the stark reality that war is a necessity in this dangerous world and not fighting when necessary might cause even more suffering. Yet my thinking isn’t mushy. I understand the arguments about war, I have been studying and teaching that material for 20 years! When I talk about, say, the Iraq war in class, I spend 20 minutes making the most persuasive case possible for the war, to show students why it could have been seen as logical, even necessary. So my thinking is very clear on the arguments and logic. In fact, one reason I choose to put the human ethic first is because from my knowledge of war and history, it’s rare that conflicts actually improve things. The only time they seem to fix things is when they so utterly destroy a system so that the survivors have to start over from scratch.
In all political debates I try to take this notion of ethics as being connected to how we emotionally understand the predicament of others seriously. This pushes me in diverse directions. Sometimes towards what might be called socialism, sometimes towards libertarian views. Ideologies are intellectual abstractions, they don’t connect well with taking the subjective human experience seriously. The choice I’ve made on how to view the world seems to me to be emotionally and intellectually more robust and tenable than either pure emotion or pure abstraction. Yet it creates calls I have to make based on purely subjective criteria — and, of course, there is no reason for others to adopt my criteria.
It’s also why I have mixed feelings about the second case. If the killer really did simply lose control in a moment of rage, and is devastated by the result, how much vengeance is appropriate? The family of the dead child may want the killer to pay severely, but does that do anything to bring back the child? Does it just waste two lives, when perhaps it’s possible for the killer to learn, change, and do good? Abstracting the case makes it easier — one can say “he killed her, he should pay,” or conversely “it was a rage crime, he can be rehabilitated.” To think about the suffering of the family of the child, the child, the man’s own inner torment, and what’s best is a case with no clear solution. Tragedies are like that.