Last modified: 7:58 AM Saturday, 14 January 2017

Watering the roots of empathy

How many numbers are there between zero and one? How many colors between red and orange? How many directions between north and northeast?


Is it a pyramid ... or a pentagram?
[ Image Source: In-house ]

The answer, in each case, is “infinite.” These are what I call “limited infinities”: They are clearly bounded in scope, but no bounds can be set to the number of gradations they comprise. We can demonstrate this by remarking, for example, that there are also infinite numbers between zero and zero point one, as there are between zero and zero point zero one, and so forth: Each infinity contains an infinite continuum of other infinities.

However, although we may easily apprehend this principle, to stare down the vertiginous well that this opens to our mind is an act of imagination, for perceptual distinctions are finite: We can understand that there is a difference between 0.00000000000000000000000012 and 0.00000000000000000000000013 meters, but our eyes can never show it to us; only our minds can do that.

Like the examples cited above, human personality is a limited infinity. Within bounds determined by the genetic materials from which we are constructed and the range of possible experiences available to us, and given the constancy of change in both factors over time, there lies a continuum of continua that can define who we are. As, for example, there is no perfect extrovert, there is also no perfect introvert; but each person falls somewhere upon a continuum between these bounds. And as there is no perfect apotheosis of courage, there is also no utter nadir of cowardice; but each of us is brave or timid in different measure and according to infinitely mutable context. So it goes for each of the thousands of elements that constitute the range of human character: Each is a continuum, and each is a limited infinity.

As to apprehend an infinitude of shades between red and orange demands an act of imagination, so too does the comprehension of another person. To experience empathy — to perceive as another does and understand his feelings — demands that you imagine yourself not only situated as he is, but also constituted as he is. You must imagine, in fact, that you are another person. And the verb is the key: to imagine.

But, like Thomas Gradgrind in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times, all that our utilitarian economic system and assembly-line educational system want of our children are facts; “too much” imagination is taken as a pathological condition and often medicated into unbeing. As conservative economic utilitarians tighten their stranglehold on education, citing financial constraints that they and their allies have incurred categorically and explicitly to justify such “austerity” measures, our definition of education shrinks to encompass only criteria of fundamental skills that lend themselves to collective, uniform standardized testing. Students are pushed ever harder to learn precisely the facts and skills required to satisfy these criteria, and learning beyond those limits becomes mere vanity, as does any application of imagination: When we are taught to pursue tangible rewards, habits that go unrewarded soon fall away.

Nor is this constriction of the imagination limited to education. Most children go home to spend the afternoon, evening and much of their weekends with the world’s cheapest and worst babysitter: the television. And watch a child in front of a TV: It is no exaggeration to describe his state as one of receptive trance; mesmerized, he takes in every sense-transfixing sight and sound. And upon the sterile, overcultivated ground of popular culture as distilled over the airwaves sprouts the seed of a sickly and stunted inner world, constrained by a hostile environment that will never let it blossom into the imagination that Albert Einstein, who had more than his share of both, said was more important than knowledge.

Without imagination, there can be no empathy. And thus we arrive in a world in which we must cast about for ingenious ways to teach empathy, that our children may not become as callous as the society that surrounds them.

Originally published as a review of a New York Times opinion article on using babies to dissuade bullying.

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