Friday Meditation: David Butorac

Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away. - Song of Solomon 2:10

I have been reading recently the book written by a famous poet and man of letters who became a Christian and who was also diagnosed with a rare and vicious form of cancer, and whose name is, felicitously enough, Christian Wiman. While the book meditates on the meaning of suffering at great length and elegantly, one passage in particular caught my eye and so without further ado, I would like to provide you with what I happen to think about empathy. He writes:

The temptation is to make an idol of our own experience, to assume our pain is more singular than it is... In truth, experience means nothing if it does not mean beyond itself: we mean nothing unless and until our hard-won meanings are internalized and crystalized within the lives of others. (My Bright Abyss, 162)

It struck me at that moment that the other speakers' remarks about empathy were beside the point, for they conceded the results of that temptation. They began, in some sense, with a barricaded self and then spoke about how one might breach that solipsistic castle, or even if we should or could, precisely because it is a castle. Yes, that pain is singular - so what can we do about it?

This reminded me the time when after second year, I was still vibrating from writing a paper on Plato's Theaetetus and I was home having lunch out with my mother at a posh restaurant. And of course, I was really very insistent that aisthesis was not episteme - sensation was not knowledge, you see - and my poor mom... we went on to talk about precisely this temptation, this idol. "David, you will never know what it was like to lose a child." My mom referred to her daughter, Natalie, my oldest sister who died 12 years before I was born. She was never mentioned at home, in that 60s generation kind of way (1960s, not 1860s) and so this was a tactical nuclear weapon employed upon my argument. Undaunted, I persisted. "But mom, if you can't share this, then anyone else who has suffered something devastating can't share it either, then we're all alone..." There was silence and then the subject disappeared from view.

"The temptation is to make an idol of our own experience, to assume our pain is more singular than it is..." Every temptation feels good and is good; every temptation insinuates itself into the wrinkles of our desiccated souls and invites us to a top of a temple and offers a chimera, the inverted world of the darkness of sin. That is the great conceit - we are alone and helpless. This same principle can be applied equally to the suffering others, usually by a third person, under the rubric of 'privilege'. You can't understand them; they can't understand you; understanding is right off the table - everyone is alone - is how I read this. But I must be certainly wrong about this.

T.S. Eliot, near the conclusion of his great poem, The Waste Land, has thunder clap and, through the Upshinads, it is interpreted three ways. Here is the second:

: I have heard the key
Turn in the door once and turn once only           
We think of the key, each in his prison    
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison
(T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land, 410-414)

Eliot makes reference here to Count Ugolino in Dante's Inferno, in the ring of betrayers, who is locked up in a tower with his three children, whom he soon cannibalises: "then hunger did what sorrow could not do". It is a gruesome image and one of horrendous loneliness. But Eliot intensifies the image of the story, to characterise the modern waste-land of our civilisation and souls, of us: we put ourselves in prisons, we lock ourselves up: "We think of the key, each in his prison / Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison". And yet the thunder - that thing that breaks through and startles us - is interpreted here as "Dayadhvam": compassion. From inside out and outside in, how is compassion, empathy, possible here? If I am locked up, then I can't help you. Indeed, I can't even conceive of you. If you are locked up, then I can't help you. We are all locked up.

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow       
Out of this stony rubbish?, writes Eliot, Son of man,         
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only        
A heap of broken images...

My sense of the empathy talks was that the castle of Eliot's Count Ugolino was conceded: we are alone and all locked up, can I toss you some bread or something?

We grow accustomed to the dark and we like it. It becomes an unconscious social norm too - everyone around you is alone and likes it and has habituated it and completely internalised this logic. Castles are safe, even if they are in fact a self-incarceration. Like a fish in his water, he can't even see it, right? Because we cannot truly reach each other in this view, only more rules and regulations can fix things - only abstractions can be offered. Only more yelling and violence and despair - from apparently opposite sides of the political spectrum, often arguing for the same thing. The rage from politics and from university students - if I dare offer an opinion - is, in a real sense, an attempt to smash the walls of the castle, so there's good there too. Let me clear about that - in a sense it is a reaction against the loneliness. But what's the end point here? I think with this logic, it's a tragic war of attrition, a war of all against all, although it intends to heal.

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow       
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,      
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only        
A heap of broken images...

We are broken images.... Instead of "we are the change that we have been waiting for" - what a perfectly diabolical paraphrase of Eliot's Ugolino?! -, instead of this, what about rest and danger and "mud, dirt and hair" and true eros? What about the bloody particular? What about you, belonging entirely to God; you, belonging entirely to your neighbour, you, there? It makes you feel uncomfortable, doesn't it?

Let the draw bridge down, open the gate and show me your wounds, Jesus says to each one of us by name. How did I know about them? Oh my sweet one. You think you are loveless and alone? Come with me that ye may be lovely. You. It is tender - pure romance - and it is terrifying - like pure romance - and it is the only way out of our violent, vicious loneliness, of which all bear the wounds. Bp. Hakwins noted that the first moment of the Resurrection was one of Eros: "Mary", Jesus said, a man and woman alone in the garden early in the morning. "Mary".

Last year in Athens for Greek Easter I was at the local church around the corner from my place. The service started outside, the doors of the church firmly shut. Then at midnight the priest - acting as the resurrected Christ - demanded, in no uncertain terms, that the door be opened. The Charon figure, inside of the church, was equally confused and dismissive: "No one has ever come through that door! It's shut! Go away!" (Doesn't he represent our despair?) "Don't you know who this is?", the Christ-figure priest responds. It escalated. Fed up, the Christ-Priest hoofs church doors open, hard, and then there was not so much a procession, as an attack. The castle of the hell of the self, captured; captors, ransomed and freed; the ushers hit all of the chandeliers and so all of creation was reeling and spinning.

I think the challenge is to see how the story and images of Christianity articulate the problem of humanity - alienation from God and then from neighbour - the story that we are so familiar with, the story that we are all ashamed to say we believe in to our friends and family, and how the solution which it offers - being saved by Jesus - addresses precisely the root problem, the problem, the problem that I feel, that I think you might feel, that we can see everywhere around us. Can we smash the idols of our own pain and loneliness? Rise up, my love, my fair one, says our creator and redeemer, and come away.