Wednesday, April 17, 2013

within sniffing distance

News, unless explicitly smell-related, rarely comes up here on Nosy Girl, but regular readers will know that the link between empathy and smelling is one of the primary concerns of this project, the driving force behind the blog (that and my legitimate nosiness). With each installment in the Nosy Interview series, the heart of this site, I'm struck by what I discover about dear friends and perfect strangers alike, by how the details of their smell-lives enlarge and inform my care for them, and, it is my hope, your care for them as well.  

Regular readers will also know that I live in Cambridge, Boston's neighbor to the north, and my proximity to that city and the appalling act of terrorism during Monday's marathon have me thinking and talking about empathy in an unusually discomfiting way this week, as I struggle with the limitations of my own. Even as I resist the urge towards tribalism ("We're all Bostonians today" vs. We're all humans all of the time), I won't deny the desperate But this is our home! We live here! feeling that comes straight out of fear, that is borne of nearness to calamity, but that, of course, is felt by anyone living under threat of violence, be it infrequent or constant. On the phone, talking about the bombings with worried loved ones living far away, I bristled inwardly at a question I have myself posed in the past and contemplate with some regularity: "God, can you imagine living in a place where this happened all of the time?" No. I haven't the first idea what that would be like, and I acknowledge the sheer dumb luck of that. As my dear and brilliant friend Preeta Samarasan says, “So often we say to each other, ‘I can’t imagine,’ when really what we mean is that we don’t want to, that imagining would be unbearable.” For a moment yesterday, some of us didn't have to do quite as much of the imagining. 

That is the work of empathy, that distance to whatever vividness we are able, or willing, to imagine. The feeling is—while easy is the wrong word, automatic fits. We know the urgency of grief or fear when it is our own, the strange shock of people driving their cars to the grocery store, the disbelief that any of these things—food, vehicles, other humans and their daily lives—should still exist in the face of our loss. But I was surprised by the degree to which I felt the social-media version of this dizziness on Monday, staggered that other people were still wrapping things in bacon, winning Pulitzers, and, most importantly, asking me to remember this feeling when next I read about a drone strike. Thomas Page McBee, writing for the Rumpus, explains why the animal in me wanted comfort first:
The first step in containing the potential for trauma is safety. The second is to welcome the injured and fearful, the grief-stricken and the shocked back into the fold. This is animal logic—trauma research has found that prey animals, upon escape, need to rejoin the group and discharge their nervous energy, the stress hormones that kept them alive.
Once we’ve accounted for our own pack (with the recognition that such violence means this is not possible for everyone), and shed some shock thanks to the warmth of our fellow mammals, then we must do the work of traversing the gap between the urgency of our own feelings and the remove with which we are able to understand a bomb in a far off place, perhaps dropped from a plane bearing our own country’s insignia. The work is holding this version of empathy in our minds—this sick-smelling sweat, these clouds of smoke, these ceaseless sirens—rather than the soft-click brand that is far more typical of my days spent ‘liking’ and ‘sharing,’ engaging even with comments only occasionally, but very rarely calling up this same rage in any of its sensory agony. Glenn Greenwald’s piece in the Guardian is essential reading on the matter: 
[Whatever] rage you're feeling toward the perpetrator of this Boston attack, that's the rage in sustained form that people across the world feel toward the US for killing innocent people in their countries. Whatever sadness you feel for yesterday's victims, the same level of sadness is warranted for the innocent people whose lives are ended by American bombs. However profound a loss you recognize the parents and family members of these victims to have suffered, that's the same loss experienced by victims of US violence. It's natural that it won't be felt as intensely when the victims are far away and mostly invisible, but applying these reactions to those acts of US aggression would go a long way toward better understanding what they are and the outcomes they generate.
But what of the outcomes we may generate not from our acts of aggression, but through our empathy? The Americans who make up my self-selected tribe are people who feel deeply, empathize with their whole hearts, and hate the fact that violence is committed in their name. This pack includes people who stood near enough to smell and hear and feel the terror of Monday’s explosions but who did not hesitate to connect their own feelings of helplessness with the plights of people they have never ridden together with on a train.  What good are their enormous hearts? Is it enough to hope that they nudge a loved one a step further along the spectrum of compassion? That, in their sharing, they might afford a family member a more complicated understanding of words like “evil” and “freedom”? That they try with all they have to stand for one moment inside another's suffering, and let it connect them to, rather than close them off against, other people? I'm grateful to the friends that keep me from stagnating on that spectrum of compassion, who always challenge me to be less myopic in what I allow to break my heart. I thank writers for that, too. One such writer-hero is Zadie Smith, who has this to say about empathy
In the end, empathy is a very limited emotion. Here in the West we romanticize its power—especially in literature!—but the truth is empathy gets turned on and off as needs be. My own feeling is you need to legislate for it, to encourage people into its practice—to enforce it, if need be. Perhaps all those Wall Street bankers were perfectly nice people, too, who didn’t mean to hurt us as they did, but we shouldn’t rely on the vagaries of human personalities. Desperation, weakness, vulnerability—these things will always be exploited. You need to protect the weak, ring-fence them, with something far stronger than empathy.
I'm certainly guilty of romanticizing the power of empathy, especially as it is generated by stories. And of course we need to turn it off and on; we can’t walk around shattered all of the time, open empathic wounds. We probably can’t even sustain the bit of extra tenderness towards one another that I noticed in my everyday interactions on Tuesday, and there’s a part of me that will be grateful when my neighbors go back to being gruff, even as it indicates we’ve moved beyond the instinctive empathy generated by our terrible shared experience. But let’s say we could sustain it, enlarge it, actually bottle even just a tiny bit of our rage, despair, and tenderness to take out and get a whiff of when next we read the news. What then? How do we use our empathy? What can it do? These are not rhetorical questions. As a writer, I subscribe wholly to the notion that empathy is our most essential human trait, that the nurturing of it amongst others and within ourselves is one of the best ways we can be of use. Of what use? 

reading list: 
"The Boston bombing produces familiar and revealing reactions," Glenn Greenwald 
"Park It," Luke O'Neil  
"After Boston, we have a choice: helpless emoting or meaningful empathy," Steve Almond 
"The Tragedies of Other Places," Rafia Zakaria 
"Into the Fold," Thomas Page McBee 
"Teju Cole on the Empathy Gap and Tweeting Drone Strikes," Sarah Zhang 
"Stunned Silence," Roxane Gay 
"The Random Death of our Sense of Ease," Marjorie Williams
"On Running, Freedom, and the Boston Bombing,"  Kathryn Schulz


Elisa said...

This is so good. I wish I knew the answers. After a while even empathy can start to feel academic, when you're powerless. But are we? Or is it just that the measures required to enact any real change feel beyond us, impossible by way of extreme inconvenience? Anyway: I love you and am glad you're safe.

Britta said...

This is incredible and poignant and should be on the NYTimes front page.

J. Clark said...

You have testified in a frank and poignant way. I will strive use my empathy a little more often, and in places I never have before.

You are a smart, articulate, amazing cat.

J. Clark

nosy girl said...

Thank you, Elisa & Britta, for your generous words. You know, of course, that you are among those people keeping me from stagnating, and for that I'm grateful.

And Elisa, yes, even as I was writing I wondered is this intellectualization (autocorrect insists I mean "intellectual ruin" and maybe it's on to something) of empathy and its limits just another way for me to avoid action of any kind, even something nearer to *minor* rather than extreme inconvenience? To put it another way, I just shared, on Facebook, the following quote from Gabrielle Giffords's Op-Ed about the deplorable senators who voted today against background checks: "I am asking every reasonable American to help me tell the truth about the cowardice these senators demonstrated. I am asking for mothers to stop these lawmakers at the grocery store and tell them: You’ve lost my vote. I am asking activists to unsubscribe from these senators’ e-mail lists and to stop giving them money. I’m asking citizens to go to their offices and say: You’ve disappointed me, and there will be consequences." After sharing, I wondered, which of these actions will I take? I will unsubscribe, sure, soft-clicks again, but will I use the time I spend feeling enraged about this to go to a lawmaker's office? I don't mean this to deteriorate into a discussion of just how lazy I am, but this isn't even a matter where I have to do any empathetic legwork: I already live in fear of gun-wielding maniacs. But how resigned to that fact have I already become? Can't we be together in something other than our feelings of powerlessness?

nosy girl said...

And I love all of you & am glad you are all safe also. (My blog's template is too mangled by my subpar html-edits for me to successfully install threaded replies in the comments, so you must all collectively accept the love & gratitude I have for you.)

J. Clark, that means a lot coming from an amazing cat such as yourself! I can't really say in this space how much you've done in the relatively short time we've known one another to complicate generalizations I've been perhaps too eager to accept in the past, and in so doing, to enlarge my own capacity for empathy.

Ayla said...

Elizabeth--this is so beautiful. You brought me right back to how I felt on September Eleventh, when I was already years out of living in NYC (where I'd lived for ten), and instead living in Ann Arbor without a television. I felt so far away, yet I was mourning like I was there, and when my neighbor mowed her lawn on September twelfth I felt even more homesick, surrounded by what felt like apathy. I thought of this when, on Monday, I was traveling through U.S. airports, posting on Facebook to see if anyone could join me for a beer. I knew how it must sound to people in Boston, and I *did* feel heartbroken for the victims, for my family and friends in Boston, for us all. But it is not the same as being proximate. It just isn't. And fear, or lack there of, has everything to do with that. Thank you for your brave, poignant, beautifully rendered post. I agree with Britta; it deserves an even wider audience. Send it yonder! As for what to *do*; I firmly believe that the intangible act of expanding one's heart has ripples you can not begin to know. Ripples greater than those created by writing to your senator. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this, which puts into words so many of the complex and seemingly hopeless circles my mind has been running around this topic. I don't know the answers, but I think we should be asking these questions.

AnyasGardenPerfumes said...

Not only is empathy needed, the recognition of PTSD among the survivors, in a group as large as a city or region. Many in NYC still feel a bit of terror if a plane flies too close, and here in Miami, the body and soul goes into a tense state when a hurricane threatens, even hundreds of miles away, because the randomness of the path means 'we might get it'. The same 'we might get it' that now grips New Yorkers and will, in the future, put a strange, uncomfortable 'hyperawareness' whenever large groups gather in the future.

All this raw emotion you're feeling right now, and your connection to empathy, will transform. After an attack, or a terrible blow by nature (hurricane, fire, tornado) or manufacturing mishap (the West, Texas fire), the first emotion is empathy: help your neighbor.

Like you, after hurricanes strike here, I watch on a battery-powered TV and wonder how the world can go on with daily frivolous pursuits such as social media tweets about shoes and sports. Don't they realize we're hurting? We have no power or water, and our homes are damaged or destroyed? I can't work on a perfume for a month or more after recovery from a hurricane threat or strike, because I can't associate my art with trauma. I need distance so I don't imprint an aromatic or an accord with it.

I believe surviving events like this makes the victims more kind, more giving of themselves in spirit, that spirit of empathy.

Life goes on, and we heal, but the feelings remain.

nosy girl said...

Ayla, Natalie, and Anya, thank you so much for reading, thinking about these questions, and adding to my own thinking. I'm comforted to be able to have such conversations, even in this space (which is generally a bit more light-hearted).

I love what you say about ripples, PA, and you should know you're quite the renowned ripple-starter. And Anya, yes, I think you're right--what we feel during and after events like these does, or should, make us more giving of ourselves in spirit. I am, of course, also interested in what you wrote about not being able to work with perfume for some time after such an event. It's interesting the ways in which art can be useful as a way to deal with trauma, but with your medium, you can't risk having an accord colored in this way.

Thank you again, friends, for your encouragement & insight.

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