On empathy.

On empathy.

Mark Salzman wrote a beautiful memoir about growing up as a nerdy, well-off, suburban white kid.  Lost in Place is charming, and I’d recommend it highly to anyone who likes memoirs and to parents raising children in the suburbs.

Salzman loves to write, and he was lucky enough to make a career out of it.  But, as a well-off white male, he does not have the lived experience to know intimately every sort of character who might populate his books.  Even while writing Lost in Place, he was forced to imagine the experiences of an other – Salzman the adult was writing the book, but he was attempting to recreate the world of Salzman the child.  He was forced to empathize with the (occasionally foolish) thoughts and experiences of the youth he once was; I’d argue, based on the emotional impact of the book, that he succeeded.

The experiential distance between Salzman the adult author and Salzman the youthful protagonist is probably much smaller than the distance between, say, Salzman and an epileptic female nun, or the distance between Salzman and a troubled Latino teen.

Salzman’s Lying Awake, a book about faith and the sacrifices we’re willing to make to maintain it, includes both such characters.  But when he sent a first draft to his editor, she was less than thrilled.  In Salzman’s words (from his memoir True Notebooks):

Carlos was a minor character in the story, a juvenile delinquent with a terminal illness.  Although I had given Carlos tattoos and a bald head, he failed to impress my editor.  She thought he needed a personality.  And “please please please,” she urged in one of her notes, “give him a different name.”

Los Angeles is the youth gang capital of the world, so I figured [my friend] Duane, [who writes for the Los Angeles Times,] must have had to write about them at some point.  I asked if he could recommend any good books about juvenile delinquents that I could use for research.  He thought about it, then answered, “Not really.”

I figured that was the end of that, but then he said, “But I volunteer down at juvenile hall twice a week.  I teach a writing class there.  If you’d like to come down and visit sometime, the guys could tell you more than any book.”

Salzman knew that he was too ignorant to properly empathize with the perceptions of his character, and so he opened himself to the world in order to learn more.  He visited the juvenile detention center.  Soon, he began to teach his own writing class there.  He became friends with several students; hoping to provide moral support, he attended every court date of a young black male who’d shot and killed another kid during a violent altercation in a movie theater.

All writing draws upon empathy.  Even to create nonfiction, a writer must empathize with the reader, puzzling out which words will best allow others to understand whatever it is that the writer hopes to convey.  And with fiction, unless we expect authors to populate each and every novel with clones of themselves, a writer must ponder the ways that a character – and people similar to that character – would perceive the world.

And then, after learning to empathize with characters, a writer must find ways to share that growth.  When it’s done well, understanding spills from the page, which is presumably why reading literary fiction has been experimentally shown to increase empathy.

The world benefits, for example, when the neurodiverse among us write about their lives, giving us firsthand insight into their experience of the world.  But we as a people also benefit when people without autism are allowed, or even encouraged, to consider what the world feels like for others

Imagining what it would be like to inhabit the hearts and minds of others compels us to fight injustice; without these experiences of empathy, we might be complacent to focus only on our own circumstances.

Obviously, there are times when a apparent attempts at empathy fall short.

But there’s a difference between recognizing that some artists don’t empathize enough, and the idea that artists shouldn’t attempt to empathize with others at all.  In the New York Times editorial “In Defense of Cultural Appropriation,” author Kenan Malik writes that:

In 1955, Emmett Till’s mother urged the publication of photographs of her son’s mutilated body as it lay in its coffin.  Till’s murder, and the photographs, played a major role in shaping the civil rights movement and have acquired an almost sacred quality.  It was from those photos that Ms. Schutz began her painting.

To suggest that she, as a white painter, should not depict images of black suffering is as troubling as the demand by some Muslims that Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses should be censored because of supposed blasphemies in its depiction of Islam.  In fact, it’s more troubling because, as the critic Adam Shatz has observed, the campaign against Ms. Schutz’s work contains an “implicit disavowal that acts of radical sympathy, and imaginative identification, are possible across racial lines.”

Image by LA2 on Wikimedia Commons.

In order to convincingly include a troubled youth in his novel, Mark Salzman immersed himself in several young people’s lives.  He allowed his heart to grow.  And he, as a person, was changed.  When he first began teaching, he saw those kids as the sort of bullies who’d harassed him when he was growing up.  After a few years, he saw them as friends, many (if not all) of whom had been forced to endure more trauma as children than other people weather in a lifetime.

They weren’t monsters, they were people.  And he found a way to write about them such that readers, too, would recognize their shared humanity.

And perhaps, perhaps, feel outraged enough by his characters’ circumstances that readers, too, would work toward changing the world.  Because the world is clearly in need of change.  And empathy is the only force powerful enough to compel us to do it.

Header image from a letter sent to me by a former student, as featured in the essay “Asymmetry and the Hatred of Poetry.

On asymmetry and ‘The Hatred of Poetry.’

On asymmetry and ‘The Hatred of Poetry.’

hatredIn The Hatred of Poetry, Ben Lerner posits that many people dislike poems for falling short of an ideal.  We hold a vision of the glory that poetry could be: we want crackling verses that would, per Rilke, inspire us to change our lives; we want phrases that speak to all without resorting to postcard platitudes; we want poems to be universal, yet firmly rooted in a particular writer’s lived experience.

But the particular is never universal.  The catacombs of memory ensure that words convey slightly different meanings to us all; the best poems revel in this private language. And we, the readers, are stubborn, inertial creatures.  It is unlikely that any page’s worth of written words will change us, no matter how magnificent.

And so actual poems fail.  The ones we read seem little different from any other set of words.  As do those we write – if you are one of the few people who reached adulthood yet still writes poems.  All children do, just as all children draw, but the world trains us to slough off artistic expression as we age.  What’s worse, many of us are taught in elementary school that poetry – the ideal again – is the deepest possible expression of self.  Language is the medium of thought, and poetry is the art of language.  Lerner suggests that, in giving up on poems, there comes a nagging sensation that we are giving up on ourselves.

Why wouldn’t we hate an art that hurts us this way?

In Lerner’s words,

Great poets confront the limits of actual poems, tactically defeat or at least suspend that actuality, sometimes quit writing altogether, becoming celebrated for their silence; truly horrible poets unwittingly provide a glimmer of virtual possibility via the extremity of their failure; avant-garde poets hate poems for remaining poems instead of becoming bombs; and nostalgists hate poems for failing to do what they wrongly, vaguely claim poetry once did. one thing all these demands share is that they can’t ever be fulfilled with poems.  Hating on actual poems, then, is often an ironic if sometimes unwitting way of expressing the persistence of the utopian ideal of Poetry, and the jeremiads in that regard are defenses, too.

I can understand why a published poet like Lerner would put forward these arguments.  But I don’t agree, in large part because most people I’ve talked to sincerely enjoy poetry – ever since graduating from high school, that is, when poems were hated for being foisted upon us.  Among adults, I’ve found a dislike of poetry to be exceedingly rare.

Not many people gravitate specifically toward lyric poetry, though, especially not the sort that is featured alongside Lerner’s bio for the Poetry Foundation website.  But I believe the unpopularity of this type of poetry, with lines like “Emulsions with / Then circled the lake like / This is it.” (from Lerner’s “[By any measure]”) or “jumpsuits, they have changed / painting, I / behind the concertina wire / can’t look at it anymore …” (from Lerner’s “[jumpsuits]”), is not caused primarily by dissonance between actual poems and a reader’s pedestaled ideal.  I’d add an asymmetry of trust to the litany of offenses of which poetry stands accused in Lerner’s monograph.

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janaI do not mean to impugn asymmetry in general.  For instance, consider this beautiful passage from Jana Prikryl’s “Thirty Thousand Islands”:

Because the moon’s mass is a considerable fraction

of the earth’s, it exerts a gravitational force

on oceans as it orbits overhead, producing the

tides, or put another way, you can stand

on the shore twice daily and witness the very

water flinging itself upwards.

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This verse is secretly a paean to asymmetry.  Water has an electric dipole moment – it is asymmetric – with oppositely-charged ends attracting each other like so many microscopic magnets.  This allows water to move and flow cohesively, one molecule tugging the next along their shared path.  But the physicist and Nobel laureate Philip Warren Anderson, who made great advances in our understanding of asymmetry, writes that, as a graduate student, “this seemed very strange to me, because I was just being taught that nothing has an electric dipole moment.

Anderson elaborates:

The professor was really proving that no nucleus has a dipole moment, because he was teaching nuclear physics, but as his arguments were based on the symmetry of space and time they should have been correct in general.

I soon learned that, in fact, they were correct (or perhaps it would be more accurate to say not incorrect) because he had been careful to say that no stationary state of a system (that is, one which does not change in time) has an electric dipole moment. 

In quantum mechanics there is always a way, unless symmetry forbids, to get from one state to another.  Thus, if we start from any one unsymmetrical state, the system will make transitions to others, so only by adding up all the possible unsymmetrical states in a symmetrical way can we get a stationary state.

According to the laws of physics, the world should be symmetric.  And in the long run – on time scales that leave us dead and the Earth barren and the sun cold, impossibly far from any other source of light – the world is.  At any moment, however, objects may exhibit a temporary asymmetry (with this temporary state sustained perhaps for billions of years).  This asymmetry gives us our world.  Water that flows.  Water capable of “flinging itself upward” with the tides.

The very stars in the sky depend upon asymmetry.  According to the laws of physics, the Big Bang should’ve birthed equal amounts matter and antimatter, rapidly coalescing into nothing.  And yet, in our universe, matter predominates.  We live.

orlando-sentinelBut asymmetry in human relations can be harder to bear than the (world-enabling) asymmetries of nature.  At first blush, we thought the internet would be a great equalizer, giving a voice to all.  Instead, the increasing quantity of stuff out there has served to concentrate attention further on a dwindling number of foci.  So many in the modern world flail, shouting into the void, aspiring to fame.  The Orlando shooter checked Facebook during his crime, verifying that his humanity (at its worst) had finally been recognized.  For a moment – gun in his hand, eyes on his phone – he was as important as Beyonce.

This asymmetry is stark in poetry.  The greatest poets use language in idiosyncratic ways: they bend the rules of grammar, they use words as though their definitions were somewhat skew to those organized dissections found in dictionaries.  And readers of these poems work to understand why.  Readers at times treat great poems as puzzles: told that this combination of words is beautiful, a reader might dust and scrape with the care of an archaeologist, searching for the wellspring of that beauty.

Consider the lines I quoted from Lerner’s own work above, with constructions like “emulsions with then circled the lake” and “they have changed painting, I behind the concertina wire can’t look at it anymore.”  This is not the grammar of high school English teachers.

gilbertLerner, of course, has reasons for employing these constructions.  Just as Jack Gilbert had reasons for his choice of the adverb “commonly” in the line, “commonly I prepare for death” (from “In Between Poems”).  Just as William Shakespeare had reasons for inventing language when no existing words fit his needs.

But if average people – the uncredentialed readers of poetry – were to use words in these ways, their choices would be considered mistakes.  They are taught to trust established poets, to presume positive intent and tease out why a published poem sounds the way it does, but their own idiosyncrasies would not receive the same presumption.

This seems especially true for the people with whom I read poems most often.  Twice a week, some dozen inmates at the county jail join a co-teacher and me for poetry class.  Not every poem we bring has immediate, intuitive appeal.  But even when discussing difficult material, the men work to understand why a piece might have been written the way it was.  Then, when given paper and pencils, these men pour themselves into their own writing, for reasons Lerner well understands:

I also received multiple letters from prisoners who felt poetry publication was their best available method for asserting they were human beings, not merely criminals.  I’m not mocking these poets; I’m offering them as examples of the strength of the implicit connection between poetry and the social recognition of the poet’s humanity.  It’s an association so strong that the writers in question observe no contradiction in the fact that they are attempting to secure and preserve their personhood in a magazine that no one they know will see.

Incarcerated writers do dream that their words could allow someone to see them as human.  During one of our recent classes, TC told me that he’d seen a commercial on the jail television showing caged dogs in the pound with a voiceover saying “No animal deserves to be treated this way.”  He looked left, looked right, and started wondering: where is our commercial?

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And I’m by no means arguing that the poems written by men in jail are all great, or even good.  Drug addiction in southern Indiana has swept up all sorts, but people with money can bond out, lawyer up, and fight their cases from the outside.  They tend to win, landing treatment instead of time.  Our pay-to-play criminal justice system reserves jail for the poor.  Given the paucity of services our nation offers to impoverished children, and the underfunded state of our public schools, shunting un-aided kids straight from uncomfortable desk to uncomfortable cell, jails are full of luckless individuals who never had much scholastic success.

When inmates write, many of their poems are utter clunkmonsters, vague and sloppy and misspelled.  The men force rhymes, having conflated the concepts “poem” and “children’s book.”  Sometimes they’ll pour out saccharine repentance as though my co-teacher and I were allied with the state, rather than volunteering our time simply because this country inflicts mass incarceration on our behalf and has made us feel ashamed.  And it can be a battle convincing dudes who’ve been told over and over again “You’re bad!” that when we suggest they revise a poem, it means we liked it.

But sometimes their work is lovely.

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On a Friday afternoon last August, the men were in a particularly rotten mood.  Technological doodads break in the jail just like anywhere else, and a security camera on the fritz meant they’d been on lockdown all week.  Usually they have access to a common area and can play cards or pace back and forth, but “lockdown” means being confined to those little cells twenty-four hours a day.

Tensions were high.  And when we decided to take a few minutes for a writing prompt, they snapped.

“Nobody’s gonna read anything I write!  This won’t change shit!”

Grim.  And arguably untrue.  But…

“They’re not gonna do anything till we pull some ISIS shit, start taking off people’s heads!”

At which point my co-teacher flipped: “Fuck you, man, no.  You say shit like that, they’re gonna cancel this class.  And it’s not even fucking true.  I mean, look at this… we’re here, right?  And Frank and I are here because of shit we read.  You write it well, people will read, it will change things.”

I was nodding, although I have to admit: there’s a lot out there to read.  It’s hard for any writer to be noticed, let alone somebody pegged as an uneducated fuck-up – a criminal from southern Indiana – right off the bat.  The battle for attention can be nightmarish, giving rise to phenomena like that Orlando shooting… or the election of Donald Trump.

I have to admit: even if people do read the poems written by incarcerated men from our classes, nobody will work to understand.  These men are forced to write with one hand behind their backs, so to say.  Linguistic flourishes that would seem striking from another would be considered mistakes.

A reader must extend trust to be willing to work.  But if we trusted these men, they wouldn’t live like they do: mired in cages not fit for dogs.  Then booted out broke, job-less, home-less, med-less, into a probationary existence with far more rules than other citizens must abide by.

And yet these men dig poems.

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Lerner is correct: they’re not always keen on the abstruse lyrical sort.  That distaste seems fair.  I pray that they can one day write compelling narratives that will help change the world.  But if these uncredentialed, MFA-less men wrote tricksy lyrics, flaunting rules like Lerner does?  Then they’d be right.  Nobody would read their shit.

In their shoes (lace-less orange crocs, hosed down and issued to some new sap straight from the off-putting feet of the recently released), I too might hate lyric poetry.

On scrutiny.

On scrutiny.

We can be attentive to only a small sliver of the world.

We’re constantly surrounded by so much noise, so many smells, so many different colors, textures, tastes.  The amount of sensory information that we’re bombarded with every moment would be overwhelming if we weren’t so good at ignoring our environment.

Consider smells.  Chemicals waft through the air, bind to olfactory receptors in our nose, and cause a signal to ping our brain: there’s the floral scent of an ethyl acetate here …  But, if we stay near the source of that chemical, our brain will keep receiving that signal.  Thankfully, this information is discarded by our subconscious minds.  As long as the types of smells in a space aren’t changing, we soon notice nothing.

If our clothes feel the same against our skin from one moment to the next, all the tactile information being sent from the surface of our body is similarly ignored.  But the information is still there.  If we focus your attention on your shirt, you can feel it.

The-Pearl-294878In The Pearl, John Steinbeck reveals how this glut of information can cause us to be hoodwinked.  A poor diver becomes suddenly wealthy when he finds a giant pearl.  The diver’s infant child was stung by a scorpion and has begun to recover … but a greedy doctor would rather the child receive an expensive cure.  The doctor knows that he can fool the diver by drawing his attention to details that never seemed important before.

It is as I thought,” [the doctor] said.  “The poison has gone inward and it will strike soon.  Come look!”  He held the eyelid down.  “See – it is blue.”  And Kino, [the diver], looking anxiously, saw that indeed it was a little blue.  And he didn’t know whether or not it was always a little blue.  But the trap was set.  He couldn’t take the chance.

If we scrutinize the world, we can always find something that looks strange.

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When I was in high school, I had to get a medical physical each year.  Those cost $5 – a school nurse would measure my blood pressure, listen to my heart, and look at the curvature of my spine.  I felt healthy enough when I signed up for these physicals, and the nurses invariably agreed.  Even repeatedly-concussed football and soccer players were given a clean bill of health.

Queensland_State_Archives_2832_Medical_examination_with_the_School_Health_Services_October_1946

This $5 exam was insufficient to find anything wrong with us.  But if we’d been subjected to a $25,000 battery of diagnostic scrutiny instead, I’m sure we’d have seemed flawed.

Indeed, in a recently-published study designed to shill the new $25,000 physical from a company called “Health Nucleus” in California – which includes DNA sequencing, metabolite analysis, full-body MRI, two weeks of heart monitoring, and more – 40% of their seemingly-healthy study participants were diagnosed with “something seriously wrong.”  In several study participants, doctors found clusters of aberrant cells: pre-cancer.

In sexually-reproducing multicellular organisms, most cells carry DNA instructions to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the whole.  Some of these instructions code for contact inhibition, which means that cells stop growing when their edges bump into neighbors.  Other DNA sequences code for apoptosis, which means that cells commit suicide once they’re no longer needed.

But the mechanism for transmitting these instructions is imperfect.  DNA is copied again and again by jiggling protein machines called polymerases, and these make about 60 mistakes each time they copy our genomes.  Worse, DNA is copied from copies, so the mistakes pile up over time.  Like classroom handouts that have been photocopied from photocopies so many times that the words blur into static, DNA sequences that instruct our cells to cooperate can become unreadable.  At which point a cell is cancerous.

4.0.4Cancer cells continue growing without regard for the neighbors they’re crowding.  They carry on dividing – spewing forth copies of themselves – long after a team-player would’ve snuffed itself.

Most human adults harbor cancer cells.  All the time, they lurk in us.  And our immune systems destroy them.  Chemotherapy drugs do not kill cancerous cells – they slow the growth of all cells, giving a patient’s own immune system time to fight the menace.

So it’s unsurprising that doctors found pre-cancer in some of the study participants who underwent this $25,000 physical.  Study participants were as old as 98.  Their average age was 55.  After so much time alive, of course some of their cells had gone bad.

Early detection of cancer does boost a patient’s chance of survival, but sometimes in a trivial way.  Healthy patients whose immune systems would have destroyed a population of aberrant cells without any intervention … who might never have realized that anything was ever wrong … are counted as “cancer survivors.”  Extremely sensitive diagnosis can identify cancers early enough to be cured, but has the drawback of mis-labeling healthy people as diseased.

Every diagnosis of disease leads to harm – from worry, from the risks inherent in all medical treatment – and so has to be balanced against the expected outcome from doing nothing.  With some conditions, doing nothing would be deadly.  But by scrutinizing healthy people, you can always find something that looks strange.  Of course you’ll find “evidence of age-related chronic disease or risk factors” when you subject older people to a $25,000 battery of medical tests.  If you aggressively treat all of these, you’ll cause more harm than good.

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Because overdiagnosis can cause so much harm, the search for pre-cancer reminds me of the search for pre-criminals.  We can always find something wrong when we look hard enough.

I assume the researchers investigating children to find “pre-criminals” mean well.  I can imagine a world in which at-risk children are given more resources.  If it’s true, for instance, that a brief assessment of 3-year-olds or surveys filed by the teachers of 6-year-olds can predict future criminal behavior, we should cut spending on prisons and law enforcement to fund childhood nutrition, education, and enrichment instead.

Instead, we respond to intimations of future disobedience by watching people more closely.

Adorable Preschooler Playing with Colorful Dough

Our predictions of criminality become self-fulfilling: lifelong mistrust makes people criminals.  The racial injustice of mass incarceration is caused in part by unequal enforcement.  As far as we know, U.S. citizens of all ethnicities break laws equivalently often, but police scrutinize minority neighborhoods more closely, so that’s where they find crimes.

Similarly, when an elementary teacher decides that a student is trouble, that student gets scrutinized.  Equivalent misbehavior reaps unequal discipline.  In the U.S., children in preschool are targeted for school suspension based on the color of their skin.  A suspension disrupts education, pushing students further behind.  When a teacher decides that a student won’t learn, that student is prevented from learning.

And researchers have developed an automated image analysis that predicts the likelihood that someone is a criminal just from a photograph of his clean-shaven face.  Which isn’t as evil as it sounds.  Or, rather, it is evil, but not because a computer is doing it – the computer algorithm is simply revealing and quantifying the evil way we humans judge people by their appearances.

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Genetics differences are real, and they do make a substantial contribution to people’s proclivities.  But human brains are so plastic that the way we’re treated matters more: if you’re curious, you might want to check out this inadvertent identical twin study.

With a glance, we form strong opinions about people’s characters.  Some children we brand “pre-criminals.”  Is it shocking that, after decades of mistreatment and scrutiny, these children become the lawbreakers we always expected them to be?