Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Violence, kindness, and beauty

Last Saturday, "The National" asked Dr. Peter Lin, a member of their medical panel, to comment on the way the unrelenting stream of bad news might affect our mental and physical health.  Lin pointed out many challenges to viewers watching Philando Castile's and Alton Sterling's deaths, or of the footage that came out of the attack in Nice, noting that where once we might read a small piece in the newspaper about such deaths or attacks, we now get almost instant coverage, making us feel we are there, in that time and place.  This, in turn, triggers the mirroring neurons that normally help us in our lives.  These neurons encourage us to mirror the expression on the face of someone who is talking to us about grief, about loss, about the hundred things that challenge our sense of self in daily life, from our body image to another person's cruel and dismissive treatment of us that makes us feel less human.  When we mirror our partner's, our child's, or our friend's facial expression of joy or sadness, we are reminding ourselves what that hurt or angry or joyful person feels like.  It's one source of compassion.  But when these motor neurons react to news stories, the result is anxiety and anger:  a pounding heart, depression on behalf of a planet gone mad.

And we should be angry and depressed.  We should be angry at the death of Philando Castile, killed by a policeman while he's getting out his "permit to carry," or at the stunned Alton Sterling, when policeman sitting on top of him imagines he has a gun and shoots him to death.  We should also be angry at the deaths of policemen in Dallas and Baton Rouge, at whatever motivated Mohamed Lajouiayej Bouhlel to drive a truck into crowds of families watching fireworks on a holiday in Nice.  Or at the attempted coup in Turkey and the inevitable, brutal backlash.  Erdogan has considered bringing back the death penalty, and certainly freedom of expression will be compromised.  I've even considered getting angry at Stephen Pinker, except it turns out that he's still right, even in the context of the latest horrific news cycle.  The planet is a safer place--for some of us, anyway.

But being angry about anger?  About young men who are angry?--because it is primarily young men, regardless of how politically incorrect it may be to point this out.  (Yet I don't think we'll solve the problem until we say this out loud and acknowledge the way the "knowledge economy" and the robots used in manufacturing give many young men fewer opportunities for work.)  Being angry about anger?  How does that work?

Lin also talked about research that offered people two different kinds of news to read:  good news and bad news.  He said people overwhelmingly chose bad news.  I suspect this choice is motivated in part by voyeurism--that rubber-necking we do on busy highways when there's been an accident--the rubber-necking we do that says "there but for the grace of God go I," even while it makes all of us less safe.  Lin also suggests there are advantages to our interest in bad news.   If we learn about the Ebola or Zika viruses, we can decide to avoid travel to places where there are epidemics.  If we know that there have been attacks in Brussels lately, including to the airport, we might decide to fly in to Europe somewhere else.  African-America mothers report telling their sons that if they are stopped by police, they should do exactly as they are asked and if shoved down to the ground to lie on their faces so there can be no mistake about their intentions.  Bad news lets us feel in control, as if our knowledge will protect us.

I thought about all this Sunday afternoon as I did something I haven't done in years:  lie on my back under a tree and watch leaves and sky and clouds and a trio of robins.  But I didn't think about it very long.  I watched one robin spread out his wings and sun his back while the others groomed themselves, and I wondered about birds and desire, about birds and pleasure.  Tiny brains; so much liveliness!  How does that happen?   I noticed how transparent leaves are, how the light comes right through them, so that if you are staring up through a tree you watch a pas de trois between sunlight, the bright transparent leaves and their shadows falling on other leaves.  Music made by wind and sunlight.  I felt the wind on my skin and thought about how friendly the world could be.  And then I thought again about anger.

Henry James has said "Three things in human life are important:  the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind."  Our response to the anger that is both far away and near by should be kindness.  Kindness is a kind of moral imperative in an angry world.  Who knows what kind of a dent we can make in anger with random acts of kindness?

Kindness to ourselves and to the wider world can take the form of beauty, of noticing beauty.  I had a startling experience on one of my rare forays to the U of R campus.  Because I go so rarely, there are lots of things to attend to, and the time had felt chaotic.  As I was striding through the ground floor of the North Residence on the way to my car, I was stopped by the tiniest white flower put out by a spider plant, a flower about the size of the stem that winds your wristwatch. Who knew spider plants bloomed?  Who knew such tiny flowers could be effective means of creating more spider plants?  I had a swift and sudden sense of order in the world, order that I could see through beauty.  There is much disorder in the natural world, from cancer cells to tornadoes, but nature doesn't get very far without order.

What do we do when there are these tragic deaths?  We light candles and lay piles of flowers.  In doing so, we promise to remember--because I can't imagine laying flowers at the sight of a tragedy and ever forgetting that moment or the tragedy that prompted it.  In promising to remember, we give to the victims' families the only comfort--insufficient as it is--that we can:  we promise to remember.  But we also create beauty.

Our sense of what is beautiful marks us out as individuals as much as our sense of anger at being disenfranchised in the modern world.  But beauty, as philosophers have been pointing out since Kant, has a second interesting quality.  If I am respectful about your sense of what is beautiful, I do not insist that you share my judgments, no matter how powerfully I believe that I am right.  But I hope that you will.  And if you do, I have started a community.  Such communities spring up around a garden, a Leonard Cohen concert, in an art gallery--where you find yourself speaking to someone you do not know because the Monet or the Mary Pratt before you is so astonishingly beautiful, the Leonard Cohen song so deeply moving.  Such communities have uncertainty at their core--unlike any fundamentalism--because its members can neither insist that anyone share their experience nor can they explain exactly what makes something beautiful for them.  Perhaps we lay flowers because they defy rage and certainty, creating among the others who have also been here and laid flowers a sense of community in the shared attempt to create a moment of beauty.

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