Thursday, January 13

the conundrum of moral orienteering

On Saturday, when I heard about the Arizona shooting, I was writing this:

Who are you? I mean, if someone walked up to you at a party and asked, “Who are you, really?”, after you raised an eyebrow and maybe looked at your shoes for a second, what would you say?

The always sparkly Judy Clement Wall said this on her always delightful Friday List post:

I was wondering what would happen if we sought only meaningful connections. What if we tried, always, to see the person and not the title – neighbor, parent, cashier, waitress, mail carrier, homeless guy, child. Would it be exhausting to live like that? Would we long for the freedom of not really caring? Would we crave superficial conversation, goodbyes that don’t hurt? Or would we feel alive, surrounded by love, connected to each other in a big, beautiful, messy human tapestry, each of us a piece of the breathtaking whole?

I responded with this:

I hate how, so often, we ask what people do instead of asking who they are. I hate that, just as often, when someone inquires about who we are, we answer by saying what we do. I am not what I do. I am me, more than the sum of my actions.

And then I heard about a supermarket parking lot in a warm place and thought about little else all week.. There were long stretches of soul searching, periods of despondency, frustration, anger, a couple arguments with people I generally respect, and a relapse of the cold brought on by too many sleepless nights. Yesterday I crashed and slept for thirty out of thirty-four hours, so I guess I needed it.

The arguments centered on whether this was a time for recriminations or reparations, division or peace. I find the blame game incredibly frustrating right now, and appreciated that Mr. Obama worked hard to avoid it yesterday. The only blame I think we should be laying is on ourselves; all of us, regardless of political, social, religious, or sports affiliation.

I said Saturday that I thought – think – empathy is the key to getting out of this place of polarization. If we could spend a bit more time wearing the shoes of other people, even if just in our head and just for moments, then we’d be less inclined to despise them unreasonably.

We’d still disagree; at least I hope we would. Growth, progress, enlightenment - these depend on the grain of sand stuck in the shell, causing friction and forming those pearls we need to pull out of the mud and make our own. But we wouldn’t hate as much. We’d see people across the aisle, street, border, and ocean instead of enemies. We’d see faces instead of silhouettes; individuals instead of mobs.

It was tempting to get lost in the spiral of confusion about what we’re doing these days, to think about how little empathy there is instead focus on the evidence of it that fills my life. I think yesterday’s physical collapse was as much about rebooting emotionally and mentally as it was about being physically sick. I just shut down, had to, needed it like I needed the soup and liters of water and the absolute quiet. It was a migraine of the soul that I was getting over.

I also think that the identity issue is a key. People who know who they are tend to be empathic. They’ve done or are doing the work, or have simply been blessed with a better internal compass, and there is no question about what it is that defines them. They give strange answers when people ask them what they do instead of who they are, intentionally trying to confuse the interviewer. If we don’t speak the language of self-awareness, we don’t understand.

I read an article last week about how new studies are redefining how language affects the way we interpret the world around us. One example they gave involved Aboriginal peoples of Australia, how they don’t have words for ‘behind’ or ‘front’ or ‘beside’. Their language evolved in a world that was wide and expansive and centered on the sky and the stars and the sun, so all of their directions are based on cardinal points. They don’t say, “I was standing beside him when the kangaroo jumped out”. They say, “I was standing to his east when the kangaroo jumped out of a bush to the north”.

When they tell a story, their hand gestures are always cardinally accurate to the event. If they describe the arc of a person falling out of a boat they were in, they don’t gesture relative to themselves, but relative to the compass position, so that if they tell a story facing north one time, and south the next, the gestures will adapt to show the exact direction of the fall in cardinal space.

And, for these people, it’s not just language. Put them in a dark room, blindfold them and spin them around, and they’ll still, infallibly, point to north without hesitation. Perfect sense of direction is built into them so deeply that they can’t help but know where north is.

I wonder if it’s even possible to have a moral compass so right and so sure that everything we say would be true to it, infallibly, unassailably, perpetually.

I don’t know, but if it is, I want that super-power. I call dibs.