Monday, April 25, 2011


The other day a friend of mine asked me whether I thought humans had evolved to anthropomorphize so that we didnt simply trample over everything else in the world.

I admit it seems like an appealing notion that somehow our empathy serves a purpose. Unfortunately it seems like we're doing a fine job of trampling over everything else in the world in spite of that, though admittedly, thats likely more a function of how, in large human groups, other forces trump quaint, more personal notions like empathy.

For some reason, this reminds me of one of my favorite quotes (Thomas Hardy):
"In common with most rural mechanics, he had too much individuality to be a typical 'working-man'--a resultant of that beach-pebble attrition with his kind only to be experienced in large towns, which metamorphoses the unit Self into a fraction of the unit Class."


PoliticAli said...

Hi Navigio; Good to see you posting again.

I tend to be very optimistic and have not given up on the existence of nobility among our species. The real threat to empathy comes from disassociation. Whenever we see someone else as subhuman, belonging to another species, empathy gets lost and we are capable of great cruelty as was evidenced by the unimaginable acts of the Germans against the Jews, Gypsies and Eastern Europeans and of the Japanese toward the Chinese, Mongolians and South East Asians during the Second World War.

I tend to be very optimistic and have not given up on the existence of nobility within our species. I am fortunate that even during the worst of times I have witnessed people at their best. One such story goes back to the time toward the end of the Second World War. Our family, trying to get away from the Russians wound up in Austria always on the move trying to get away from the combat zones. The train we were on was attacked and destroyed so we needed to find another one. My mother carried my sick sister and my father had our only suitcase and me in his arms. As the passengers, among them soldiers, walked through the woods, one of the soldiers offered to carry me. I don’t know how many miles we walked but we came to a village and the soldier took us to an inn and asked the innkeeper to put us up for a night, which she agreed to do. After the soldier left, she kicked us out. My father went to a blacksmith shop and the owner, a woman, allowed us to bed down in the shop for the night. It was cold and the floor was dirt but at least there was a roof over our heads. Toward evening the woman came and invited us to spend the night in her house. This was an act of generosity. The thing that made it a great act of generosity was that she had just gotten news that her son was killed on the Eastern Front and we were East Europeans.

I think the key to not only maintaining but enhancing empathy, is to break down barriers between people and see each other more similar than not. The rapid expansion of means of communications should help this if we don’t allow them to be usurped by groups with an agenda to do otherwise. As to “trampling”, we need to advance the notion of the interconnectedness and thus interdependence of everything. A Buddhist monk in his writings pointed out the human pulmonary system is not contained solely in our bodies but extend out to include the forest where the trees convert the CO2 to oxygen. The Jains, one of the religions of India, believe that everything, including plants and stones have feelings. Faced with the dilemma of surviving as a species without doing harm to others, they concede that that is impossible and resolve to minimize the damage by only consuming the minimum required for existence.

navigio said...

beautiful comment politicali. I am glad I decided to post this not-necessarily-current-event-topic. :-)

I am also optimistic. It is amazingly appropriate that you mentioned the 'pulmonary' concept. In this discussion with my friend, I once again offered up my oft-repeated musing that when I view trees in my freedom-from-the-mind state, I tend to see them as 'the lungs of the earth'. :-)

Your comments about interconnectedness are right on. I believe that others would benefit from understanding that this doesnt necessarily mean only from some abstract transcendental standpoint, but even from an everyday or public policy standpoint. One of the problems with our current political/economic situation, imho, is exactly this lack of understanding of the relationship between policy and its effects. A perfect example of this is how no one wants to pay more taxes, while the same people dont want to lose services. The funding issues in education are an especially poignant example of this as well. We would do better to understand these relationships, not only with our earth and other species, but with other people in our own society and communities.

Your story reminded me a bit of that of Joseph Beuys. He was a german artist who was shot down over crimea during wwii. He used a lot of fat and felt in his art (which has led to it being famed for being 'cleaned-up' by accident by especially energetic museum cleaning staff.. :-) ) and attributed this to the fact that the tartars (ironically enough.. :-) ) saved his life using these materials. There is some dispute about the account, but thats fine. See his wiki page for the story.

My own great uncle was one of the last american fighter pilots shot down over europe in wwii. His body was retrieved and given proper burial by the local clergy, something they did at their own peril.
I have stood on the banks of that very lake, bare feet in the mud where he went down and was inspired by the thought of the nobility displayed by those who retrieved him. I too am optimistic.

PoliticAli said...

Keep Posting. Current events are influenced by not so current events and can be impacted by seemingly irrelevant thinking.

PoliticAli said...

It just occured to me that it may have been your great uncle who knocked out our train. I won't hold it against you:)