Monday, September 3, 2012

The roots of our madness

Those of us who grow up with difficult, alcoholic or abusive parents learn early to read faces, to (as social thinking expert Michelle Garcia Winner calls it) "listen with our eyes." To be always alert to those around us, to anticipate their needs and moods and intentions, is the best defense in a largely unpredictable environment.

For such people -- for many people, in fact, because these kinds of social thinking adaptations arise early in life, even in healthy homes -- a picture like this can be disturbing: with most of the face obscured, we cannot safely establish the intentions of this individual.  Is he friend or foe?  Is he about to throw the tomato, or is he just showing it off?  We might even conclude that this person is a bit odd, to block his face in this peculiar way.

This ability to look at another individual and assess their intentions, imagine what they're feeling, is not uniquely human, of course; we've all known animals who seem to have an uncanny knack for sensing the moods of the humans around them.  But it is a critical element of compassion: if we are to comprehend and respond to the needs of others, we have to be able to imagine what they are thinking and feeling; how the circumstances of their lives affect them, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.  And it can be very difficult to be around individuals who find this particular skill difficult: however bright and original they might be, it can be challenging to sense or establish a connection with them -- which is part of the challenge of dealing with people on the autism spectrum.

I found myself looking at this problem on a larger scale this morning because I read the following in Merton's Chuang Tzu:

"The eyes of all men seem to be alike,
I detect no difference in them;
Yet some men are blind;
Their eyes do not see.

The ears of all men seem to be alike,
I detect no difference in them;
Yet some men are deaf,
Their ears do not hear.

The minds of all men have the same nature,
I detect no difference between them;
But the mad cannot make
Another man's mind their own."

I found myself thinking about the growing disparity of wealth in this country, and the odd disconnects we hear between political speeches and the facts that lie behind the lies they contain, and wonder: have we all gone mad?  How can we not comprehend the misery of poverty?  How can we continue to reduce the taxes of the wealthy while driving the poor into bankruptcy?  How can we dispute the need for universal health care?  How can we accuse our current president of causing the financial problems he clearly inherited?

And yet, I, too, must be mad, because I cannot seem to make this mindset my own; cannot seem to comprehend a mind that believes what seem to me to be patently untrue falsehoods; cannot understand a mentality that continues to support corporate greed, or that believes there is such a thing as legitimate rape.  That mind is as opaque to me as mine apparently is to them.

Have we ALL gone mad?  When will we begin to cross the political divide and find the beginnings of compassion for our opponents?

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