Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Do the Disassociate

I’ve been reading Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. While it’s been a bit slow moving, the writing is excellent. Gaiman is also an author who hits you with something profound every now and again. Point being, I came across this passage while reading on the train this morning and it got me thinking.


No man, proclaimed Donne, is an Island, and he was wrong. If we were not islands, we would be lost, drowned in each other’s tragedies. We are insulated (a word that means, literally, remember, made into an island) from the tragedy of others by our island nature and by the repetitive shape and form of the stories. The shape does not change: there was a human being who was born, lived, and then, by some means or another, died. There. You may fill in the details from your own experience. As unoriginal as any other tale, as unique as any other life. Lives are snowflakes – forming patterns we have seen before, as like one another as peas in a pod, but still unique.

Without individuals we only see numbers: a thousand dead, a hundred thousand dead, "casualties may rise to a million." With individual stories, the statistics become people – but even that is a lie, for the people continue to suffer in numbers that themselves are numbing and meaningless. Look, see the child’s swollen, swollen belly, and the flies that crawl at the corners of his eyes, his skeletal limbs: will it make it easier for you to know his name, his age, his dreams, his fears? To see him from the inside? And if it does, are we not doing a disservice to his sister, who lies in the searing dust beside him, a distorted, distended caricature of a human child? And there, if we feel for them, are they now more important to us than a thousand other young lives who will soon be food for the flies’ own myriad of squirming children?

We draw our lines around these moments of pain, and remain upon our islands, and they cannot hurt us. They are covered with smooth safe, nacreous layer to let them slip, pearllike, from our souls without real pain.


A rousing endorsement of disassociation, no? Perhaps.

Yes, caring can cause pain and bring into focus the magnitude of human suffering, yet is the reverse any more comforting? If we completely shut out everything that is painful to us and simply don’t give a damn, don’t we risk shutting out everything else as well?

Down that path lies only loneliness and isolation.

How do we manage to be sympathetic without becoming empathetic? Sympathy allows us to care about the feelings and experiences of others, while empathy pulls us into those feeling and experiences, often resulting in our feelings and experiences being overwhelmed by those of the person we are empathizing with.

It’s a thin line, a tightrope we walk every day. Can we turn a blind eye to the staggering, half-blind vagrant on the subway or do we give them a quarter and trust they won’t use it to stumble further down their spiral? Can we ignore the suffering of people who had the simply misfortune of being born in a third world country, secure in the idea that some international aid organization will help them out with our meager donation? Or do we just not give a damn about either?

Not exactly sure what point I’m trying to make here. It’s just that Gaiman’s passage got me thinking about how we compartmentalize things we encounter every day. We do this for the sake of our own happiness and sanity, but to what degree does it rob us of our humanity?

Shutting out the world with help from:

Austere - Curio
(shimmering audio haze from Portland’s ambient gods)

Erroll Garner - The Complete Savoy Master Takes
(lovely, light, and lilting touch on the piano)

Depeche Mode - Violator
(I do indeed enjoy the silence)

Method Man - Tical
(OK, can't all be mellow now, can we?)

The Weir - Weiry But Wisened Old Fool
(weird DIY hip-hop funkery)


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