Embodying Empathy

It is apropos that I missed posting last week due to lack of sleep. My tiny black ninja cat decided that 2:30AM was an excellent time to sit on my pillow and conduct intensive grooming. If you’ve ever had a cat bathing in your ear, you’ll understand why this put a kink in my sleep schedule.

A day later, Chris had a trip so we were up at 5AM to get him to the train station. Then something came up workwise and I had to get up early the following day to write.

black cat

Photo by Hannah Troupe on Unsplash

Just a normal conflux of niggles and responsibilities, in other words, but enough to throw my system into a spin. My mouth was dry, my head ached, I yelled at the cats for getting underfoot. A layer of chill wrapped me that had nothing to do with the cold, damp day. Every small task was aggravating, painful, like a shoe-bound pebble that swells with each step.

As an adult with, heaven help us, responsibilities, it is up to me to negotiate sleep deprivation without becoming a danger to myself or others. Babies, on the other hand, are immune from expectations about how they should act when they are tired. Well into childhood, Richter scale meltdowns are excused because “s/he’s tired”. Rightly so. Being tired is harmful to health. According to the International Journal of Endocrinology, “sleep deprivation and sleep disorders may have profound metabolic and cardiovascular implications.” It is, “adversely affects the physical wellbeing and quality of life of participants, demonstrated in bad mood, somnolence, and tiredness” (Journal of Family Medicine Primary Care).

Babies, kids, are responding appropriately when they have a tiredness-induced crying jag or temper tantrum; their bodies need rest and are wired to seek it at whatever cost to adult sanity. This is reasonable.

What isn’t is that as adults we expect/are expected to have a different – unnatural – relationship to sleep. Instead of acceeding to our physical needs, we are supposed to keep going, as if our bodies are wrong for needing what they need.

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Cultural deprivation

There is a certain cultural tendency to fetizishation of work at the expense of sleep. Margaret Thatcher famously slept four hours a night. “For the Iron Lady four hours was a badge of almost superhuman strength. It fits the narrative of the “warrior” prime minister…” wrote Tom de Castella in a BBC News Magazine piece. The same article noted that Trump claims to only sleep three hours a night.

That suggests something with deep implications.

As a baby, we are begged to sleep; as a small child, we are made to sleep; as an older child/adolescent we still have bedtimes or curfews. As a young adult, we have the giddy freedom of being able to stay up as late as we want – and do all sorts of dumb things as a result. Then, at some invisible point, we suddenly find ourselves expected to function perfectly, whether we’ve slept or not. We’re running to stand still and those bitterly resented childhood naps sound idyllic.

This was my experience, in any case, with minor variations. When I was very small and expected to take an afternoon nap I’d lie awake, telling myself stories to pass the time. Staying up till midnight was a once-a-year occasion, a thrilling New Year’s Eve pressed up against a space heater, eating Planter’s Honey Roasted Peanuts, turning pages with sticky-sweet fingers until the clock reached 12.

When I was a young adult, immersed in music and club culture, midnight was a starting rather than an end point. The delirium of those years seemed, at the time, like part of the fun. Now, I feel anxiety amounting to dread at the thought of being out at two or three in the morning, much less four or five.

Unrested = unhinged

When duty and distraction combines to keep me from sleeping my first reaction is anger. And, because I’m tired, it is irrational rage. I am minimally patient at the best of times; sleep-deprived, I’m plain mean. I lose the ability, or will, to see things from a different perspective, or have a sense of humor. Incidental slights – a rude driver, a slow shopper – become personal affronts.

Is it coincidence that a three-hour-a-night sleeper is unhinged and meglomaniacal? Or that a four-hour-a-night sleeper was willing to crush entire industries and thousands of lives on an ideological whim?

Trump is, and Thatcher was, remarkable for lack of empathy shading into brutality. It is horrible to witness; like a toddler’s tantrum, a sign of something amiss.

It makes sense, though, that people who deny their own basic needs are willing, even eager, to deny the needs of other. I feel bad, so why should you feel good?

A couple of years ago I had a student who responded to a prompt about homelessness with a devestating account of her own struggle with poverty, homelessness and mental ill health. It was a brave thing to write. Her conclusion shook me: “Nobody ever helped me, so I don’t think they deserve any help. If I had to do it myself, so should they.”

There is a cold, undeniable logic to her statement, but it is a building block to a society I don’t want to live in.

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Cultivating kindness

We have two options: value ourselves and others; or not. If we truly value ourselves, we can’t denigrate others; if we don’t value ourselves, we can’t then magically summon goodwill towards those around us. For all our intellectual capacities, we operate as physical beings. When we are rested, nourished, and secure, we are capable of being expansive, creative, contributing members of society.

If anxious, tired, and hungry, we can’t think about anything beyond meeting those immediate needs. We can scrape by for a while, but we can’t consistently deprive ourselves of essentials without getting pinched and wild-eyed.

Kindness has to begin with ourselves. Respect and compassion for self begin with taking care of our needs – without guilt or apology. Then, fortified and of sound mind, we have the capacity to care about other people.

 

On Integrity

Jenny Odell, in her manifesto: How to do nothing: Resisting the attention economy (the book), quotes Mark Zuckerberg saying: “The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and the other people you know are probably coming to an end… having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.”

Integrity is a word that means a lot to me, so this claim caught my eye.

A few years ago I sat down to work out what attracts me to my (superficially) disparate friends. Most them to I met as an adult, so childhood bonds weren’t it. Apart from the odd freelance collaboration, none are or were colleagues. We’re scattered across continents and time zones, so it isn’t proximity. And we don’t always see eye to eye on culture and aesthetics. So what is it I look for in a friend?

Three things, it turns out: integrity, generosity, and curiosity.

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Integrity can be hard to define. Joan Didion writes (in On Self-respect) that the word “character” has been unfairly relegated to describing homely children and unsuccessful political candidates. Similarly, “integrity” has been softened into a synonym for ‘honesty’, a bloodless approbation for people who don’t fiddle their taxes.

My guess is Zuckerberg used it in this sense. In his two-dimensional, blue-bordered world, having more than one way of relating is dishonest. By his definition, Zuckerberg has mounds of integrity as his smug, Bond-villain-bland facade rarely flickers.

That’s not my idea of integrity. Nor a quality any of my friends share – nor one I’d value.

Integrity, the kind that makes my synapses pop when I get near someone who has it, is internal consistency. People who have it are like those wobbly toys you can shove over in any direction and they always right themselves. Integrity is the weight in the centre, the internal gravity that keeps a person true to themselves.

Plants are a wonderful example of internal consistency that is not rigid. Let’s take wheat. When I left southern Spain a few weeks ago the wheat fields were already dry and bleached to pale gold. In the north, they are still fresh, damp, and bright green. Neither gold nor green is dishonest, it is simply responding to its environment according to the mandates of its deeper purpose: which is to grow and ripen.

 

My friends have grown. They’ve changed careers, faiths, relationships, locations, hobbies. They are not the people they were. Yet, they are. Because – integrity.

They have internal consistency. All the external changes, however far-reaching, arise from deep roots of character (in the full, Didion-endorsed sense of the word). The qualities of their integrities (which are legion) include self-awareness, critical thinking, dark humour and responsibility. Whatever they do, or don’t, I can count on them to be true to these fundamentals.

My husband often admiringly quotes a friend who said: “I may have low morals but I have high ethics.” This gets to the heart of why integrity matters.

Morals are something imposed from outside; one obeys out of fear or a desire to please. Ethics, though, are a manifestation of integrity. Internal consistency creates an intrinsic framework for relating to others, which is expressed as ethics.

“Ah!” you say. “But without morality, what will police integrity? Are you saying that serial killers and child abusers should be allowed their internal consistency?”

Right. That.

Needless to say: of course not. The point of integrity is that it is internal – a relationship to oneself. People who exploit and abuse have relinquished the relationship to self in favour of externalising their anger, disappointment, etc. They have traded the possibility of integrity for the ugly, fleeting gratification of brutality. They are ethical failures. Though, tellingly, they may not be moral failures. Just look at the Catholic church cheer-leading for Fascism during and after the Spanish Civil War, or the fundamentalist Christians murdering doctors.

Letting someone else think for you, even in the name of “morality” makes violence more, not less, likely. As Germaine Greer wrote in The Female Eunuch:

To abdicate one’s own moral understanding, to tolerate crimes against humanity, to leave everything to someone else, the father-ruler-king-computer, is the only irresponsibility. To deny that a mistake has been made when its results are chaos visible and tangible on all sides, that is irresponsibility.

One’s own moral understanding is an important phrase. It implies that we have to be aware of our fundamental beliefs. It isn’t enough to have internal consistency, we need to interrogate it. It isn’t enough to know what we do; we need to know why we do it. Self-study is a safety mechanism. It helps us articulate who we are, which then determines how we relate to others.

Self-knowledge is what prevents internal consistency from becoming routine. Without it, we can mistake superficial interests or habits for something intrinsic. When we know our foundations, we can build, tear down, rebuild. If we mistake décor for structural support, we get trapped in an unchanging space.

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What does it matter, integrity? (Who cares how I choose my friends?)

It matters because we live in uncertain times. I’m going to go not-very-far-out on a limb and say that many of us are, or will be, in political situations where personal integrity may be the only way to avoid abetting crimes against humanity.

I cannot look at what is happening at the U.S. southern border, specifically; or American prisons, generally; or the farce that is British “democracy”; and believe that things will work out. We may yet halt the slide to full-blown Fascism, but it won’t be by chance.

Odell also quotes from “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience” by Henry David Thoreau: “If [the law] is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine.”

One person of integrity can’t stop the machine. But, if we band together, our collective friction might just be enough.