Finding the Balance
Having lost all affection for the corporate world, she had left it without a backward glance and was now immersed in a career full of sunshine, animals, art, and a more basic, more personal, commerce. She was fulfilled and happy. Over dinner with this new-found acquaintance, I peppered her with questions and soon discovered that a life spent caring for lots of animals bears less resemblance to a Beatrix Potter story than to a constant all-weather slog through the sort of manual labor I’ve never known, nor wished to know. No sleeping in. No travel allowed. After all, who can one call to “pet sit” fifty sheep and thirty goats while one goes to the beach? Not happening. In spite of these all too obvious, at least to me, drawbacks, the lady had no hesitation in declaring a total love of her lifestyle and her countenance underscored her words.
She told me she had long ago cancelled her newspapers. She never watched, read, nor listened to the news and would stop anyone cold who attempted to relate to her the horrors of the day. She wasn’t familiar with the presidential candidates; she had no knowledge of the 372 mass shootings in the US in 2015; she hadn’t seen the recent photograph of the starving polar bear making his way across the rapidly disappearing arctic ice. As the conversation flowed away to other subjects this revelation bookmarked itself in my brain and I turned it over and over all the way home, this woman’s choice to be selectively ignorant becoming more beguiling with each mile. After all, why do I need to know the latest glob of odious lava that spews from the mouth of Donald Trump? What can I do, really DO, to change the bleak reality of the thousands of homeless, hopeless refugees bobbing like corks in treacherous seas? There is no doubt I carry the stresses of this type of heavy knowledge; no doubt it sits on my soul like a brick. Why couldn’t I, like my friend, simply… blissfully…choose to ignore it?
Over the next couple of days I mulled and I pondered. For the life of me I couldn’t figure out how my awareness of the world’s pains, pains I could neither alter nor change by the mere fact of my knowledge, could benefit anyone, least of all me. In fact, I thought, who knew what might happen if my dedicated nescience resulted in a whole new bank of newly freed brain cells, freshly washed and ready to march to the forefront of my creativity. Finally I broached the subject with The Songwriter, ready to dissect these possible benefits and weigh them against my current reality. He looked at me and said, “But awareness is how you develop empathy. Isn’t it?”
And I suppose that’s the crux of the matter. Regardless of what the newscasters and politicians would have us believe, the events of the day should not merely generate fear and xenophobia. They should create awareness that can eventually bring about change. Great art can certainly engender empathy and so, of course, can travel. But is that enough? Can we really afford to be selective about what we choose to know of the culture around us, however disturbing it may be? There should be a balance, I think, between the sort of immersion in the woes of the day that leads to depression and the conscious, continual, avoidance of bad news that leads to selfishness. I’m sure the lady I spoke with knew her own boundaries and had chosen accordingly. But if we are unaware of the refugee, how can we identify with him? And if we are unable to identify with him, unable to put ourselves into his shoes, why should we care what happens to him? If we are not personally effected by the changing climate, why should we bother voting for those who wish to tackle it? If we’ve never been a victim of gun violence, why should we see it as a problem? If our soul does not regularly bruise with empathy, will it not harden?
I have a friend who chastises me for giving money to beggars on the street. He’s convinced it’s usually a scam, and maybe that’s true. But what I’ve tried to explain is that I don’t just do it for the man with his hand out. I also do it for me. My sense of empathy allows me to see myself in that man, as painful as that often is. My impulse is to help, and I fear that to squash that impulse would be tempting damage to my soul.
I cannot risk that.
Don't be tempted by the shiny apple
Don't you eat of a bitter fruit
Hunger only for a taste of justice
Hunger only for a world of truth
'Cause all that you have is your soul
I confess I often skip the front page of the Times and head straight to the Arts section in an attempt to escape the idiocy that seems rampant in the world today, so I’m still working this all out. I’d love to hear your thoughts.