Or, I see your point and raise an objection. Bridge is way more fun than poker so why aren’t we playing it already?
I used to spend a lot of evenings listening to music and walking my dog, usually passing through a park near my mom’s house. The park is two blocks long, with a makeshift baseball field on one side and a pool on the other. There is a large playground near the pool and a small area with picnic tables where I often went to write poetry at night. The openness of the middle area of the park is interrupted only by a large tree slightly askew from the center.
I felt a profound sense of connection there, both to the natural world it seemed to reveal in the sky and scattered foliage, and to the human society that had embedded the place as a kind of temple within the collective home of its city. The altar for me was the the isolated tree near the center, whose crooked branches evoke pity and whose tangible motion of rising seems to demand awe. Its thickest branch, beginning relatively low on its tall trunk but still too high to reach, juts away from the rest in an unreasonable and determined manner inspiring respect. There have been many nights in my life when I looked at that tree and saw it as a representation of the human ideal.
One night I was listening to Vivaldi’s Gloria, a piece that begins in that simple, sweeping, celebratory way that can be almost embarrassing, but which develops into something disarmingly earnest and meditative. My path to the park dropped me off at the middle and I paused to look at the full moon and my tree, not quite straight ahead.
After a while, I began to see indistinct faces appear in the moon. None of them were familiar, and with time they would each morph, one into the next. Every time I blinked, a cross-shaped flash of light raced from the moon and every street light, then retreated back just as quickly. I didn’t think about it much; I just stood there, kept watching, and felt the deepest peace I’ve ever known. About half an hour later, I went home and prayed for the only time in my life that I can remember.
The next day, I was in a state of bliss. And the day after that. And again.
For the next two or three weeks, I perceived a clarity that enabled me to remain unperturbed by all of the usual stresses that lay along the routine of my blandly stressful life. It was what I imagine is meant by an experience of grace.
The clarity that I perceived has largely been lost on me, but its most important feature was the conviction that I was in control of my own mind. Whenever I noticed impatience, irritability, or frustration beginning to creep in on me, I would ask whether that reaction was constructive. Each time, I concluded that it wasn’t, so I would turn it off. I tried to explain this to my friends and none of them believed me, assuming that what I was describing was repression. I viewed it instead as a conscious decision not to accept unproductive burdens.
Pretty soon it was as hard for me to understand other people’s reactions to experiences as it was for them to understand mine. I remember talking to a friend who expressed embarrassment about something, and I asked her whether she thought the feeling of embarrassment was useful. She said “no,” and I asked her why she didn’t stop feeling it. (The observant reader will notice what a complete asshat I was being, but I urge him to postpone this topic until sections III and IV.)
At some point, I let the clarity slip. There was something unpleasant and I wasn’t sure whether it was constructive or not to feel bad about it, so I left it alone. After that, I was pretty much back to my ordinarily-stoic self.
There are a lot of things that I don’t respond to. Visually arresting movies don’t arrest me and I usually find them incredibly boring. Party games don’t feel challenging enough to engage me and, again, I usually find them a little boring. I don’t like the feeling of being tipsy or drunk, although there have been a couple of times when it has still been a very positive experience to drink a little “too much” (for me, this usually means more than two beers) with the right friends.
Even at the height of any god-like powers I might have once apparently had over my mental state, it has never made sense to adapt my preferences in social settings to enjoy something that I am not otherwise inclined to enjoy. This is very interesting to me because it seems that most people must be able to adapt their preferences automatically.
I try to not be a blow-hard all the time and I mostly succeed, but this can be tricky if someone asks me what I think of something. “It was fun” is my go-to answer when I don’t care for something but also don’t feel at liberty to be a Total Bummer. I say this as a factual observation and don’t see it as dishonest. However, it doesn’t always mean that I have the emotional response of having fun.
When I do reveal a neutral or negative experience of something, there’s a good chance someone will ask me why I don’t like it. The result is often something like the following, taken almost verbatim from a recent conversation:
(Friend) Why don’t you like Cards Against Humanity? (Me) I don’t find it very challenging, so it doesn’t engage me as much as most games. (Friend) You’re missing the point; not everything has to be challenging. The point is to have fun. Don’t you like to have fun?
But I’m not missing the point any more than my friend in high school was missing that not being embarrassed is preferable to being embarrassed.
It’s obvious that there was a lack of empathy in both situations, on my part in the first and on my friend’s part in the second. A person can exhibit a lack of empathy in any of several ways: by not caring how other people feel, not understanding how they feel, not understanding what they believe, or not understanding the tools available to them. Each of these can be damaging, but I only try to avoid people who suffer from the first since the others are mostly unavoidable and are usually temporary with respect to any particular issue. In my experience, the most rampant failure mode for empathy, and the one operating in both of the examples above, is the inability to understand the mental tools available to others.
I only began to admit that other people really can’t do the things that I do near the end of college. Obviously, I understood that some people have disabilities that I don’t have; what was difficult to accept was that “normal” people couldn’t do things that felt normal to me. To take an easy example, I always thought that people who didn’t understand physics just weren’t thinking about it the right way, or didn’t care enough to put in the work to learn it (because despite what people seem to think, most physicists work very hard to understand their subject). While I still think this is true in many cases, I’ve gotten a lot more on board with the conventional wisdom that many people just can’t “get” physics with any reasonable investment of energy.
To take the harder example at hand, I eventually admitted that other people really can’t just decide to not experience unpleasant emotional reactions when they’re not useful. I can imagine that this sounds incredibly obvious. However, I also get the sense that it isn’t at all obvious to a lot of people that I can’t just turn on having fun when doing Objectively Fun Things like playing Cards Against Humanity.
I spend a lot of time thinking about how to be a good person. I care about other people a great deal; I earnestly try to understand how they feel; I sympathize with and even cherish them having different opinions than me. I follow through on doing what I think is right. Which is all to say that I put myself squarely in the category of “pretty good person on any convenient scale.”
I readily grant that this category is too informal, built on all kinds of complicated prejudices, and maybe even sort of icky to talk about. However, it seems to be a useful concept and more important than deconstructing it is figuring out what makes someone like me, who is generally described by it, be a complete asshat sometimes like I was with my friend about being embarrassed.
Before looking at this problem on the more general level, I’ll identify two circumstances that have made it relatively easy for me to come to terms with the fact that other people don’t have all of the same mental tools available to them as I do. First, many of those cases have been hammered into my head as wrong by just about everyone in the world. After all, what is the proportion of people who find physics not only relatively approachable, but incredibly fun to learn and do? Even so, driven by a strange combination of humility that my ability is not that special and arrogance that I know how other people’s minds work better than they do, it took me several years to start believing everyone who claims that physics is not really for them. Given that, I can’t blame anyone for being pretty sure that I’m just not playing Cards Against Humanity with the right attitude.
Second, I’ve had the bizarre good fortune to have an ability and then lose it. Although I have always been and still am better than many people at regulating unpleasant experiences, I don’t continue to perceive that they are always under my control as I did for a while in high school. Like most people, I have sometimes slipped into depression with no pretense of its constructiveness. But the most jarring thing is that all bets are off when I sleep.
I have a history of being strongly affected by my dreams; I once dreamt that I forgot my girlfriend’s birthday, and I felt so bad about it that I went to a bakery and bought her deserts to try to make up for it after I woke up. I’ve had extended periods where I have unpleasant dreams several times a week, frequently with dreams sufficiently distressing to wake me up in the middle of the night. This means that every time I sleep, I have to come to terms with the reality that there are certain mental processes that I typically seem able to regulate, but which will suddenly be out of my hands for a while. This process gives me an extremely crude way of experiencing first-hand what it might be like to be another person with access to a different set of mental tools.
Steven Weinberg, theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate, proposed the mechanism for unifying the electromagnetic and weak interactions, played a significant role in the development of particle astrophysics as a field of study, contributed to our modern understanding of the problem known as renormalization that marred physics since the Abraham-Lorentz theory at the turn of the century, and wrote some of the most definitive textbooks on both relativistic quantum mechanics and general relativity. However, he is perhaps best known to the Internet for the following patently ridiculous quotation:
With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.
I would amend this to the following probably-still-ridiculous-but-less-patently-so quotation:
With or without unfalsifiable beliefs, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes unfalsifiable beliefs.
Beliefs can be unfalsifiable in principle like metaphysical solipsism (the assertion that one’s own mind exists but not the external world or other minds), or they can be unfalsifiable in practice like Christian futurism (an interpretation of the Bible including the assertion that the world will end as described in Revelations; there will certainly be a last human alive unless our understanding of cosmology is horribly mistaken, but it is probably not practical to wait until the extermination of the human race to see whether it happens in the manner claimed). I intend my version of Weinberg’s aphorism to include practically-unfalsifiable beliefs. This allows my version to cover, for example, evils such as those perpetrated by a racial separatist who has no plausible way of observing the decency in members of other races because he refuses to tolerate their presence. As far as I can tell, most evils that can be fairly attributed to religion stem from the practice of holding beliefs that are unfalsifiable either in principle or in practice.
The general phenomenon of being pretty sure that other people’s minds work the same way as yours is sometimes called the typical mind fallacy. The insidious thing about the applications of the typical mind fallacy I’ve described is that they are self-consistently unfalsifiable. When someone tells me that they can’t understand or do something, then I’m free to insist that they’re just going about it the wrong way and as soon as they try it my way, then the whole problem will clear up. If the problem persists, then it just proves that they still aren’t thinking about it in the right way.
The deepest mistake that I made in high school, allowing me to be so bewildered by my friend who claimed not to be able to become unembarrassed at will, was not failing to see that embarrassment is an intrusive emotional reaction that often bypasses a person’s subjective sense of agency. It wasn’t even failing to see more generally that other people’s minds don’t work the way that mine does. The chief mistake was constructing my worldview based on my personal experience under very limited and unusual circumstances such that it was insensitive to the mountain of contrary evidence from everyone around me.
If my friend made any mistake in being critical about me not enjoying Cards Against Humanity, I’ll leave it for her to figure out. However, I will highlight one thing about that conversation: when I explained to her that I often perceive others becoming defensive or accusatory when I reveal ways in which I experience things differently than them even though that appears to me to be outside of my control, she apologized for her tone and for approaching the subject unfairly. Under those circumstances, that is the most good thing I can think to ask any good person to do.