integrated into a burning house

Behind what we think of as the Russian menace lies what we do not wish to face, and what white Americans do not face when they regard a Negro: reality—the fact that life is tragic. Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death—ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible to life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return. One must negotiate this passage as nobly as possible, for the sake of those who are coming after us. But white Americans do not believe in death, and this is why the darkness of my skin so intimidates them. And this is also why the presence of the Negro in this country can bring about destruction. It is the responsibility of free men to trust and to celebrate what is constant—birth, struggle, and death are constant, and so is love, though we may not always think so—and to apprehend the nature of change, to be able and willing to change. I speak of change not on the surface but in the depths—change in the sense of renewal. But renewal becomes impossible if one supposes things to be constant that are not—safety, for example, or money, or power. One clings then to chimeras, by which one can only be betrayed, and the entire hope—the entire possibility—of freedom disappears. And by destruction I mean precisely the abdication by Americans of any effort really to be free.” “Down at the Cross” in The Fire Next Time 339

Yesterday, I read a blog about how to encourage The Other Half to take on empathy for others. The thrust was that The Other Half seems only to develop empathy once they are personally touched by an issue, and that the best way to encourage them to develop a sense of empathy was to make them feel the pinch. We, this writer and I, are in agreement that what The Other Half primarily lacks, and are further in agreement that this dearth lies at the heart of our social problems. We diverge on the twin questions of how and whether this can be addressed.

Were I to agree, for the sake of argument, that this problem should be addressed, I would certainly disagree with the path forward that calls for further suffering. After all, it seems entirely antithetical to the idea of empathy that it should exist only after a person has experienced pain. Empathy should grow from within, take hold in a space of selflessness, and expand to fill the person and inspire their thoughts and actions. Empathy that is wrought on the forge is merely so-called; it is not the genuine assumption of another’s burden, but rather the result of a misery-loves-company program of enforced solidarity. In addition to being an insufficient proxy for true empathy, this ersatz concern is wildly inefficient. Even if I were to agree that The Other Half must, to build empathy, feel some form of pain, I would be forced to simultaneously acknowledge that the process of inflicting such pain would be simultaneously Sisyphean and Stygian. How precisely does one calibrate that pain such that it produces empathy and not antipathy? After all, the cries of All Lives/Blue Lives Matter show that, when confronted even with the remote possibility of pain, many among The Other Half will instinctively redouble their commitment to apathy and indifference.

If the answer does not lie in inflicting pain, then perhaps it lies in inflicting love – though I am not nearly as convinced of this as Baldwin or others. The call to love thy neighbor has always been readily answered by the downtrodden – much to their expense – and I am wary of taking up a posture of subservience in order to, perhaps, be tossed a few scraps from the table of civilization. Nevertheless, the concept of love certainly has merit. I am, cynically, more trusting that love can achieve the stated purpose of helping The Other Half grow a sense of concern for the rest of us who exist within the gravitational pull of their narcissism. After all, it tends to undercut that instinctive withdrawal into selfishness, perhaps ironically because to be loved is to want to be loved more. I find much more appealing the answer that love needn’t be directed toward The Other Half but rather directed toward those who are already chasing empathy. A mutual admiration society is little more than a self-congratulatory circle-jerk, but an intentional community of individuals uplifting and supporting one another in the good, hard work of caring for that same community.

This is when I come to separatism and stare out across it like an open field. If that intentional community cannot gain a foothold in America, if love lands on hardened hearts, and if pain only serves to drive The Other Half further into their fury and misery, then it is time to go and it is time to leave them in their fury and misery to dine on one another. It is time to leave behind Horatio Alger and the robber barons, time to depart across that field and into another land where we can work for something bigger. I do not wish to be integrated into a burning house. I do not wish to endlessly debate my own humanity. I do not wish to have to convince you of your own. I wish to live my life, and I wish to look back on it after a handful of years and think that I have negotiated my passage toward death with as much grace and humility as possible. And when that time comes for me to die, I hope to look around at a community built on compassion and unity, and know that I leave my daughter, her children, and however many generations may come next, in the able care of one another. I wish to rejoice in death.

For this, there is no need to teach The Other Half empathy. For this, there is no need to teach them love or to withhold it from them until they crave us enough to lay aside their hate. There need not be a revolution, except for the quiet kind that happens within the hearts and minds of those who understand that there is a better way to live. The revolution must be the realization that The Other Half cannot change and do not want to, the realization that life is short, too short to waste trying to save them from themselves, and the realization that we carry within ourselves the seeds of the next great civilization – compassion and fairness – which will spring up on whatever fertile ground we find.

 

 

 

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