Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Hey, does anybody remember empathy?

My friend Molly Field recently wrote this piece on the passing of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. Specifically, she wrote about somebody she knows who felt it necessary for some reason to respond to the news of Hoffman's death by labeling him a "bum". Actually, "a self-interested bum" to be precise, presumably because initial reports indicated that Hoffman died of a drug (heroin) overdose. I enjoyed his movies and appreciate his talent, but beyond that, I don't have any kind of tangible connection to Philip Seymour Hoffman and I'll bet this associate of Molly's didn't either. I don't feel I'm qualified to proclaim Hoffman a hero any more than this other guy is qualified to condemn him as a bum. More importantly, who cares what we think? Even more importantly, why would we think it matters to anybody what we think? Talk about "self-interested". What propels us to rush out and cast a verdict on people based on a relatively trivial factoid we just learned about them?
People are going to blame the internet. "It's Twitter and Facebook and all this stuff that lets people be anonymous and makes them say terrible things", they'll say. To which, I reply Bullshit. Why are an overwhelming majority of the rash, impetuous things people say on Twitter and elsewhere nasty and vitriolic? How come nobody ever has to go back and retract something they said because it was unjustifiably nice? Is Twitter responsible for the spite and meanness that people spew and if so, exactly how does that work? Seriously, tell me how to make it do that, because mine will only spit out whatever words that come from my head that I type into it with my fingers.
We just got finished with the Super Bowl, during which we ran Richard Sherman, a professional football player who most of us had never heard of before, though this instant judgment/trial by no jury process, based upon a TV appearance that lasted less than a minute:

  • "He's a thug." = "I mean, just look at him." - Most of us who knew nothing about him
  • "He's not a thug; he went to Stanford" = "Nobody who ever went to a good school ever did anything wrong" - Most of us who knew slightly more than nothing about him

And the thing was, it seemed to matter less who was right and who was wrong than it did how quickly you could get behind an argument. When that's not only the goal but also the criteria used for achieving it, it's pretty obvious that not a lot of value is placed on introspection or consideration and that the good ol' benefit of doubt is going to be a casualty. Why is that? Who decided that the rush to judgment is more important than any kind of thought that goes into that judgment?
Without knowing Philip Seymour Hoffman, I don't feel comfortable saying he was a hero or a bum. However, with the benefit of a doubt, I do feel comfortable in guessing that he was a person with problems and that he did what he thought was best on a daily basis in dealing with those problems. That description applies to virtually every person I know, although the individual circumstances and results may differ a great deal. He wasn't perfect but neither is anybody I know, including the ones currently "making it". It definitely applies to me. As a result, I have no reason to believe it doesn't apply to the vast majority of people, known or unknown, just out there walking around, doing things and trying to keep it together in a possibly doomed-from-the-start effort to experience more happiness than sadness before they die. Life is a sytruggle. Some people deal with it better than others. Philip Seymour Hoffman was one who didn't/couldn't handle it well. He's gone now and people whose lives were touched by him are sad about that. All those people are just like you and me and they deserve better than scorn and derision when they "fail". They certainly deserve better than you being "FIRST!" to point it out in some stupid and ultimately meaningless on-line forum. They deserve some empathy, because that could just as easily be you. Or me, or somebody who looks like they have it all figured out.
Listen, the next time something like this happens... and it won't be longer than a few days at the most... stop for just a second and do the following:
Reclaim your right to think.
Reclaim your right to feel.
Reclaim your connection to your fellow human beings, with whom you have more in common than you probably realize.
And go ahead and be totally selfish about it. Do these things for yourself and nobody else. I promise we'll all be better off for it anyway.


Mary E. said...

Well said on all counts!

DeBie Hive said...

Well done, Clark. This world is certainly lacking in empathy.

Jeff Hickmott said...

Nicely put, amigo.

Clark Brooks said...

Thanks. But make sure you check out Molly's post. She was the inspiration.