Today of All Days
The first time I felt like I really knew it was in the fifth grade. I was in a school gymnasium, not my own, waiting for my brother’s jazz concert to finish. The room was long and fluorescently lit and yellow-beige. The smell invoked sweat and must. The audience was seated on long wooden stands along the long side of the gym, parents and children cycling in and out between acts to get ready for the performances they were there to see.
Among the jazz band’s portfolio was the theme to Spiderman, the cartoon anthem that was a part of my childhood. Having spent many nights outside of the practice room door, I had heard their rendition countless times. The charm had worn off, and my attendance was more an act of support for my brother than in anticipation of the song.
There was a child who felt differently. As his sister approached their mother with her instrument packed away, they moved to leave. The younger brother began to have a fit. He cried and screamed, and among incoherent begging I heard him say I want Spiderman, I want Spiderman!
Despite the fact that no, I did not want to hear Spiderman, my heart broke. I had a visceral, ugly reaction in the pit of my stomach. I was one of a hundred watching this kid get carried out of the gymnasium, but I felt singularly connected with his disappointment and childish rage. I naively thought that no one else could have felt what I felt then, what he was feeling, not even his mother. I had understood sympathy before, but this was something else entirely.
It feels absurd to write, but this experience affected the trajectory of my life. It pushed me towards faith and service to others, towards studying Psychology, and exploring the concept of empathy. I don’t even really know if it was the Spiderman theme, or some other masked hero. The only memory I have is of my intense cognitive and physical reaction to this total stranger well over a decade ago.
Thirteen years later I found myself on a train headed into the city. I was accompanying my girlfriend to a job interview. It was one of the last commuter trains headed towards the city, full of financiers and bankers headed towards the downtown core.
The train stopped about twenty five minutes into our trip. For a long time. It was during the summer months, when the city gets hot and muggy and miserable during commuting hours.
Eventually we found the story online. There had been a fatal collision on the tracks ahead. A person had died. Some time later they made the announcement for us to exit the train and kindly wait for replacement shuttle buses, which would be arriving as soon as possible.
As a trainload of people rushed onto the platform and towards the station, a traffic jam formed. We stood shoulder to shoulder, a collective square peg aiming for a round hole. As we inched closer, I spotted a young family a few bodies ahead of me. I saw a boy, the youngest of the group and maybe 10 years old, lift up his arms to the heavens and bellow today of all days!
"He wasn’t the only one thinking it, but he was the boldest of us, the most brazen"
It was a crisis of existential proportions, a frustration that transcended into the spiritual realm. His day had been ruined by the inconvenient timing of the ending of a nameless human life. He wasn’t the only one thinking it, but he was the boldest of us, the most brazen. The innocence of childhood often reveals what we hide from others and even our conscious selves.
Sure, a man had died, but did it have to be right now? Did it have to be today?
I could have been either child at different points of my life. I have felt great loss for the mundane, and I have written off the truly tragic. This is true for all of us, simply due to the volume of horrible truths we are exposed to on a daily basis. Reports of refugee children and famine and interspersed with commercials for laundry detergent and buckets of fried chicken. We see these stories, but in a specific context that separates the factual from the emotional. If it were different, watching the news would be amongst the worst experiences imaginable, fluctuating from manic to depressive with each story.
The business of storytelling is far larger than we often realize. It’s obvious that narrative is used in fictional media, but it’s reach is far greater. Narrative is present in music, advertising, and news reporting. When was the last time you saw a car commercial that simply showed you the features? Instead, we’re shown a story about what our lives will be like if we own that car. It is setting, character, atmosphere, and plot.
The news in particular is increasingly narrative in nature. The prevalence of partisan news is an obvious sign, but even self-professed neutrality is often a narrative designed to illicit a response. It tells us that they aren’t like those other guys.
Social media pioneers were keenly aware of our addiction to narratives when they began developing their platforms and services. Facebook, for example, is a platform that allows us to connect with others across the globe. It keeps its brand promise, but much of its success is owed to the fact that Facebook provides us with an audience. We curate our lives into a narrative and broadcast it to others, who themselves are broadcasting.
These thoughts aren’t unique or especially controversial. What’s perhaps more interesting is the effect that narratives have on us as empathetic beings - people capable of transcending our own perspective in order to connect with the circumstances and struggles of others. Narratives have an incredible ability to transport us, whether to other places, points in time, or perspectives. This allows us to depart from our default viewpoint - an inward lens through which we view and interpret the world.
Consider this - everything that you’ve learned and experienced has happened to you. Everything is coloured with our underlying and unspoken biases and assumptions. While this sounds insidious, it’s actually a beneficial attribute of the human condition. Everyday life would be an exhausting thing if we had to approach everything from a neutral viewpoint. We rely on schemas and shortcuts to filter information and make judgement calls on everything from human behaviour and body language to whether or not our steak on the grill is medium or medium-well. Without these, we’d be colourblind - unable to access a deep and meaningful dimension of human life.
Narrative forces allow us the opportunity to move beyond this paradigm. By reading a book, attending a performance, or watching a film we can aspire to expand our experience from our own singular experience to a wider variety. There is always a residual lens that we experience narratives through, but the effect stands - narratives share the experiences of the other, those outside of ourselves. This is a key to empathy and a well-adjusted life.
Narrative also allows us to obsess over ourselves and our place in the universe in a way that runs completely counter to these outward and empathetic benefits.
Consider our young existentialist commuter. Today of all days! While childhood self-absorption can reveal a more blunt form of unempathetic perspective, we experience this everyday. That young man’s actions showed that he was concerned with his inconvenience above the death of another, but we are reduced to smaller, but equally self-oriented judgements regularly.
How many times have I sprinted onto a waiting and crowded bus, only to begin checking my watch fifteen seconds later thinking what’s the hold up, doesn’t the driver know that it’s crowded in here? The transition from desperation to frustration happens near instantaneously, due to my own rapid change of circumstances and fortune. My change from the outside to the inside reflects my unconscious belief that this is all about me. Once I am on the bus, the story can progress. Once I arrive, there is no longer any need to wait.
All of this happens, to all of us, at some level. It is the uglier side of the human narrative.
Narrative has the ability to make us more empathetic. It allows us to cross boundaries and at least attempt, in good faith, to understand those who are different. When we subvert narrative to fulfill personal fantasies of inflated importance, that outward and beneficial aspect of narrative becomes a cultural poison. We turn empathy into self-absorption, and allow ourselves to indulge in what is a necessary aspect of human existence - the ability to insulate ourselves from the pain of others. Instead of reaching out to others, we narrate our own lives. We go inward.
Exploring the relationship between humanity, narrative, and empathy is difficult. It’s hard to talk about lenses and paradigms with any degree of integrity because even as I speak about meta-level concepts of empathy, I am speaking through my own lens, my own ego, and my own unconscious self-absorption.
Take, for example, my connection with the poor young boy who left that jazz concert screaming. I didn’t really know him. I don’t know his name, his beliefs, his secret ambitions or fears. I can’t even picture his face, although I have a vague visual memory of him that has been distorted and rewritten a hundred times over the last decade or so. Despite all of this, I claim to have had a connection. A connection that is unverifiable and potentially self-serving, because maybe it paints me in a better light, as someone who is sensitive. You could suggest all of that, and maybe you’d be right. In these sorts of discussions it is easy to be a cynic.
"When you are unaware of your tendency to put yourself at the centre of every story, you go through life unconscious"
Do any of those qualifications and hesitations matter though? I would rather be the person in the stands trying to feel what that young boy felt than the person who can only see the death of another person as an inconvenience, because I can at least attempt to be aware of my own biases and motivations by making a conscious effort. When you are unaware of your tendency to put yourself at the centre of every story, you go through life unconscious. You don’t make the effort to overcome the temptation to take narrative inward, rather than outward. Empathy turns to fantasy, with you as the main character. You become colder, more frustrated, and smaller. Your world shrinks into the pinhole of your own personal experience.
Trying live an empathetic life is not an exact thing. It is hard, and it requires constant failure, failure that is the result of a conscious decision to try and overcome the trend towards inward thinking. Empathy is daring to risk the presumption that we know what others are feeling in order to escape the unconscious belief that the feelings of others are less real than our own.
I have felt great loss for the mundane, and I have written off the truly tragic. But I can take ownership over how I experience reality.