Thursday, April 19, 2007

Empathy is the Enemy

Following up on the heels of my last post, I'd like to link to this excellent and articulate one that has spun out into a fascinating discussion. And one that's left me asking myself the question -- why do I feel so goddamn much? And I don't mean that in some positive "look-at-me-aren't-I-so-wonderful-for-being-so-compassionate" way -- I think I get wrapped in other people's tragedies in a way that's actively unhealthy.

I mean, 9-11 changed my life, and I don't mean that glibly. And it didn't happen to my city (hell, I don't even like New York), nobody I knew was involved -- but that day has been stamped on every play that I've written since. Somehow it left me wracked with a guilt and nausea that hasn't fully faded to this day. Why?

Thinking about this got me thinking (as most things do, sigh) about my Catholic upbringing, particularly a quote from Paul's Epistle to the Romans:

"For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do."

See, Catholics have this concept called a sin of omission, which means that you're not only responsible for the evil that you do -- you're also responsible for all of the good that you fail to do.

There's a degree to which this makes sense. I mean, if I walk past a guy dying in the middle of the street and don't do anything to help him, then, yeah, I bear part of the responsibility for his death, even if I didn't, say, run him over with my '95 Ford Taurus myself. Or if I neglect to mention that the door labelled "FREE COOKIE DOUGH" actually leads to a pit of venomous snakes, then I bear part of the responsibility for the fat German kid who ends up in the poison control center.

But what if I don't actually see the dying guy? What if it's a kid starving to death on the other side of the planet, and there's something I could do to help him? Am I responsible for him, too? Following this line of reasoning, it's not hard to arrive at the conclusion that you're indirectly responsible for all of the evil that occurs in the world. And we laugh at this, like it's somehow harmlessly neurotic, but it's not. That mentality has destroyed far too many lives to be dismissed as harmless.

After all, what if we could invade the starving boy's country, and see to it that nobody went hungry again? The very concept of a sin of omission implies that if we have the power to do such a thing, we have the responsibility to do so as well. And this clearly isn't a hypothetical situation -- how many have died in Iraq, because our "responsibility" to liberate the people?

Assuming responsibility for that much pain and suffering isn't humility, it's arrogance, more than a desire to protect, more than a desire to liberate, it's a desire to be God -- the greatest sin of all. A world ruled by benevelont self-interest -- where everyone took care of themselves, reached out to help the people around them, picked the dying man up off the street -- that would be a good world to live in. But we forget that the ultimate root of fascism isn't selfishness, but compassion -- that desire to lead everyone to the promised land, and thinking that you have The Way to do so.

I'm no Ayn Rander. Altruism isn't evil. I believe that that impulse to help others is the one of the noblest of our species. But it's important to remember that it's almost impossible to help someone without hurting somebody else, and that same impulse that leads us to do good can also lead us to do great evil.

And I wonder if my strong emotional response to tragedy isn't a reminder that I, too, have the capacity for both. Which is why I don't own a gun. Which is why I'll never run for office.

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