Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Academics and Connecting with Other People: Empathy in Life and the Humanities

Me and Rob were sitting outside and I saw two hispanic men and started thinking about all the culture and language that separated us. And the academic world and how it simultaneously brings me closer to people and distances me from them. It brings me closer to them when I am alone in my room. Articulation and people and pain. Can I get closer to their experiences? yes no?

The bulk of the academic work that I am interested in has to do with experience. With living. With feeling and breathing without a choice. I really like getting close to other people. I like feeling other people's pain and love. I'd like to think of myself as being pretty sensitive. I try to embrace it and make it into a good thing rather than something that overwhelms me or troubles me. But I'll be honest, my sensitivity can overwhelm me and sometimes it troubles me. But more so, much more so, I think of it as a way to feel closer to other people.

I think it has to do with the imagination. Last night my friend Efron asked me if my imagination was running away with me, or something like that. I said typically.

I like my imagination. I like thinking about it. I like writing about it.

I'm now gonna transition to my major discussion here, but basically what I have said is that I think I am really sensitive and have a really strong imagination, and that this leaves me open to feeling a lot of other things. It makes me very empathetic. Further! all of my favorite disciplines (history, philosophy, literature, sociology), are all about getting closer to other people's experiences with the imagination. My favorite disciplines all involve a more complex form of empathy. Empathy is what I'm all about.

So this question (does academics enable me to connect with more people or does it alienate me from them) feels like a very serious question to me. I will state my (very preliminary) answer in plain language now then I'll discuss it.

I believe that my academic work ultimately lets me connect with other people more. But it does it in a counter-intuitive way. By engaging in really serious academic work, thinking about taking it to the PhD level, you are in many ways separating yourself from the bulk of people. You are learning to read and think things that most people have no interest in doing. There is no denying that it separates you. But, at the same time I think that some academic work can enhance your ability to connect with other people. It gives you an awareness of the limited scope of your own perspective. It can strengthen your imagination to let you empathize with people in a wide range of situations despite your lack of personal experience. You can become the crafter of your own world of meaning once you've realized somethings about yourself and about your imagination.

So, turns out I don't really feel like exploring this question at too much length right now because I believe so much of my other writing has it covered.

The humanities can indeed give you the ability to empathize with lots of other people who are very far removed from our situation. The key is synthetic experience. You read other things and you can feel for other people. You can get a sense of other things even if you don't go through them yourself.

But at the same time it can feel alienating. Expending mental effort to get in touch with people who are out of touch with me. That sounds arrogant and silly. But I think it can be a thing. Sometimes people don't care. And if I push myself to understand why they don't care, it hurts. Because I am expending lots of effort to be like a mind that is expending no effort, and it feels bad to make my mind be that way.

But hey my post from April 30th totally covers so much of this stuff in depth and more technically. How do you like your pain? is a section of that post. Do you like it as the absence of understanding or do you like it as a process of painful understanding? The latter. Always the latter. maybe not sometimes though.

No comments:

Post a Comment