Soft-heartedness

I am too soft-hearted, it’s getting worse, and it’s a nuisance.

I know what you’re thinking – Andrew’s been stopping to give money to every beggar he passes in the street, so he never has any money left to buy lunch, and he’s always late for work. Well, actually no. I would call that sort of behaviour Compassionate rather than soft-hearted. That’s an altogether more laudable quality and one on which I don’t measure up especially well, although I am working to try to improve it (I give large amounts to carefully selected charities, but not usually to beggars, for non-soft-hearted reasons that are beyond the scope of this essay).

What’s the difference? Well to me, Compassion is the ability to discern the suffering of others and empathise, combined with a disposition to act towards alleviating the suffering. Soft-heartedness on the other hand is a tendency to get very upset about the distress of another, when one discerns it. I’m not very good at discerning the suffering of others, so unfortunately I’m more likely to perceive a beggar as an obstacle and a nuisance than as a suffering person in need of help.

The difference is particularly apparent in situations of conflict. People who are rude or inconsiderate often act thus because they are suffering in some way. Unlike a very compassionate person, I will often resist or even retaliate against unfriendly behaviour without stopping to think about how the antagonist might be feeling. But later, I might pause to wonder how they felt, and feel bad about the conflict – even if they started it. If I were more skilled at compassion, the conflict might never have happened. In such scenarios, the difference between compassion and soft-heartedness is timing, and regret.

My soft-heartedness manifests itself mostly when I am reading or watching fiction. I get very upset when something sad is happening. To see the sadness in fiction, there is no need for the discernment skills of a truly compassionate person, because the suffering is usually presented so starkly that only an emotionally tone-deaf person could miss it.

When I encounter such sad tales, I do the grown-up equivalent of a child hiding behind the sofa when the Daleks appear on Doctor Who shrieking ‘EXTERMINATE!’ I stop reading/watching.

Usually I will close the book, or stop the DVD, and go and do something else, because I just can’t stand wallowing in that misery any further. I might even pick up a different book or DVD and read/watch that for a while.

Often I stop reading before the bad thing even happens, if I know it is just about to happen.

I have found that, if I leave the book for a day or more, I can summon up the ‘courage’ to come back to it and read a little bit more. I can get through the arrest of Edmond Dantes in Le Comte de Monte Cristo if I start right at that point, without having just gone through the lead up of the joyful engagement celebration with his beloved Mercédès, from which he was untimely ripp’d by the officers of the Procureur du Roi.

I think the reason that works is that, by distancing myself from the book for a while, I loosen my emotional ties to Edmond and Mercédès, so I care somewhat less about what happens to them (they are, after all, only fictional!). I see them less as people, so I am more able to stand their misfortunes.

As an aside, this technique of using distance and de-personalisation to block empathy is employed very effectively by the current Australian government to support its program of treating refugees brutally in order to discourage subsequent refugees. It forbids the publication of any personal information about the refugees, including photos that show any faces, and it keeps the refugees in detention camps on distant islands, where hardly any voting Australians, or journalists, will get to see them. That way, voters are less likely to realise that the ‘illegal arrivals’ their government is brutalising in their name are humans, with feelings and parents and children. Thereby, the voters will be less likely to feel empathy, and consequent revulsion at what is being done in their name.

While I am (obviously) strongly opposed to the use of such techniques with real people, I can vouch for them as highly beneficial in the case of fictional ones. I got myself through Edmond’s fourteen years of solitary confinement in a dungeon under the gloomy island fortress the Chateau d’If by taking it a few pages at a time, interspersed with regular breaks in which I reminded myself that Edmond, Mercédès and Edmond’s lonely, destitute father (who died of starvation and a broken heart while Edmond was imprisoned) were not real.

There has to be something to make it worth the effort though. I will only persist with struggling through long, gloomy passages of a book if I think that they are essential to the art, and that there will be at least some redemption later on that makes it worth the pain. If those criteria appear unlikely to be met, I cast the book aside for good. I did that with Arundhati Roy’s ‘The God of Small Things’. There was too much child abuse and misery, with no clear indicator as to why I should subject myself to reading about it. In Monte Cristo, it was worth suffering through though, for what came later. This filtering process rules out most movies with lots of violence, including those involving organised crime or serial killers (that’s about two-thirds of the best-seller shelf gone right there). Stories focusing on emotional cruelty in dysfunctional relationships are similarly excluded, unless the depiction of the cruelty can be justified by egregious artistic merit or the imparting of great wisdom. The TV news is also excluded – I can stay abreast of what I need to know as an engaged citizen by just scanning the headlines and reading important articles on a reputable news site like abc.net.au/news. I don’t need to know about grisly murders, abductions and far-away terrorist attacks. I know that violence and cruelty happen in the world. I will do what I can to prevent it. There is no need for me to submit to ghoulish blow-by-blow accounts of it in order to be persuaded to act where appropriate.

The intermittent approach to reading and watching has become very prevalent with me lately. I will have several movies on the go at once, in some cases watching only 5-10 minutes of each at a time, in order not to get too emotionally involved. I’m intermittently watching one at the moment called “À l’origine”, in which a con man tricks a whole load of construction contractors in an economically depressed town into working for him on the promise of deferred pay – while he demands cash bribes from them for ‘awarding’ them the contracts. I cringe at the thought of the devastation and despair that will ensue when the contractors are not paid, having borrowed heavily to hire machinery and staff. Currently I’m down to watching less than five minutes at a time. It’s touch and go whether I’ll make it through, notwithstanding the plaudits it received at Cannes (why are so many film festival films miserable?).

I think there is an overlap between soft-heartedness and the much-derided trait of Sentimentality, because they can both involve strong feelings of empathy. But they are not the same. Sentimentality is something like a wallowing in tender emotions, which includes sadness but also sweetness, admiration and nostalgia. The most potent criticism of the writing of Charles Dickens (whom I love) is that it is sometimes too sentimental. The worst bits seem ludicrously over-the-top to us, but that’s what Victorian-era Britons loved. Oscar Wilde summed it up so well when he said ‘One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing‘. I didn’t laugh at Little Nell’s demise, but I did cringe. The presentation was too twee, too unrealistic, to invoke my sympathies. I could no more mourn her than I could mourn the coyote in Hanna Barbera’s Road Runner cartoons being blown up (yet again) by his own sticks of dynamite.

I think sentimentality is a particularly unhelpful emotion because it tends to generate sympathy only when the suffering heroine is very lovable. Yet the people most in need of empathy are generally not easy to love. If they were, they might have received more help, and not be in such a desperate situation. So some Victorian sentimentalists saw no contradiction between on the one hand weeping uncontrollably over saintly, pretty Little Nell and on the other going to watch the public execution of some filthy, ugly, foul-mouthed ne’er-do-well that had the misfortune of being born into a social stratum in which the only way to survive was to join a street gang and steal.

Soft-heartedness is not much better than Sentimentality, but maybe it’s one step further from inanity. It at least allows one to feel sympathy for – and hence maybe to help – ratbags, thiefs and murderers, if their suffering is sufficiently apparent.

Another manifestation of my soft-heartedness is a terrible dislike of disappointing people. In bygone days, when I managed a whole bunch of people at work, I hated when, after doing interviews for a new hire, I had to tell the unsuccessful applicants that they were unsuccessful. My imagination would picture them dissolving in tears of despair as soon as they put the phone down, all their hopes and dreams dashed, despair looming. I doubt that ever happened, but in my imagination it happened all the time. Soft!

That’s where being soft-hearted can be a socially unhelpful trait, rather than just a privately irritating one. I decided to no longer manage people at work, partly because I found having to be their boss, or potential boss (in the case of job applicants), too stressful. Based on the performance reviews I received, it seems I was a better than average boss, so by removing myself from the pool of managers I suppose I have slightly degraded the overall quality of the management in the organisations in which I work. A good manager will do the unpleasant managerial tasks, the tickings-off, the firings, the counselling of underperforming employees, the ‘no we don’t want you’ phone calls to job applicants, firmly but as kindly as possible, taking a ‘cruel to be kind’ approach when necessary. I did that, but disliked it because I was too soft-hearted about it, so now I don’t do it any more. It doesn’t really matter though in this particular case, because not doing management frees up my time to do more complicated technical work, where my comparative advantage, and hence my value to the organisation, is stronger than it is in people management.

The main book I’m reading at present is Muriel Barbery’s ‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’. The story is told in alternating sections by the misanthropic, impoverished yet highly literate concierge of a Parisian apartment building with wealthy occupants, and the precocious, nihilistic, world-weary, twelve-year old daughter of one family of occupants. There was no great tragedy happening, but it was all rather gloomy, seen through such misanthropic pairs of eyes, which made it hard going. I could only read a few pages at a time. But all of a sudden the mood brightened! In one short chapter the concierge reveals that she actually likes someone – a nineteen-year old daughter of a family in another of the apartments, who is determined to be a rural vet – against the wishes of her family, who don’t think the profession is classy enough. The girl regularly visits the concierge in her ‘lair’ to have long chats over tea about the health of Léon, the concierge’s cat, and the other animals in the building. It’s amazing what a difference a little ray of sunshine like that can make. All of a sudden, I’m looking forward to the rest of the book.

Soft!

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, July 2015

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On Adventures

When I was little I wished I could have an adventure. I put it down to reading too much Enid Blyton. The children in her stories were always having adventures. In the Wishing Chair and the Faraway Tree they visited magical lands in the clouds, got chased and imprisoned by goblins, wizards and stern school-teachers (Dame Slap and Mr Grim), flew on various improbable objects and had regular feasts. In the Famous Five and the Secret Seven they snuck across dark moors at night, following shadowy men in overalls who turned out to be either burglars or smugglers, frequently nearly getting caught, but finally managing to trick the wrong-doers and manoeuvre them into a sticky situation in which the grateful police were able to arrest them.

Oh, why can’t I have adventures like that?’ I wondered. ‘Why is my life so dull? If only I could have just one adventure, I’d be so happy!

In primary school I loved playing soldiers with my friends in the bush around my home. Sometimes it was just me and my imagination. There were lots of great places: creeks with banks you could peer over to take a shot at the enemy, tall grass you could creep through, mounds of stones and sticks to hide behind and wriggle over. ‘If only’ I thought ‘this was a real war and I was a real soldier, with a tin helmet, a combat back-pack and a Lee-Enfield rifle’. I never thought about what shooting someone, or getting shot, would mean for me or them. One generally doesn’t, as a seven year old boy. When you’re shot you just fall over. You don’t bleed or scream.

When I was older, I graduated from Blyton and Boys’ Own Adventure Annual to CS Lewis and from there to JRR Tolkien. ‘Fellowship of the Ring’ – now there’s an adventure’: travelling enormous distances over magical landscapes of enchanted forests, brooding mountains and miasmic swamps. Pursued by hideous spectres on terrifying black stallions. Dreading the power of the Dark Lord that I know is out there searching for me, growing stronger every day. I wasn’t that keen on the battle scenes – they were too chaotic and repetitive for me – but the struggle against the elements, trying to traverse the Misty Mountains in a blizzard, getting lost in the Mines of Moria, evading the tentacled monster in the black pool, that was the stuff of life! I longed to peek into Mordor, or even just to visit the Misty Mountains.

In later high school I often rode my bicycle out into the countryside. One of the rides was an 80 kilometre circuit past Tidbinbilla, to the West of Canberra in the Australian Capital Territory. There were steep hills and, further to the West, the Brindabella mountains. They were pretty good, and would occasionally get snow in mid-winter, but they were no Misty Mountains. Partly it was the lack of craggy peaks, partly the usual lack of snow, and partly the fact that the surrounding countryside was mostly brown, nothing like the lush green of Tolkien’s Shire.

One winter it rained more than usual, and the foot-hills turned green. I remember looking at them as I rode by and thinking: ‘Now if only they didn’t have those wire fences, and they had snowy peaks in the background, then this would be like the Lord of the Rings!’ There could even be dwarves and barrow-wights in tunnels under the ground.

Perhaps today’s teenagers would instead imagine that it was the countryside near Hogwarts, with dragons and hippogriffs flying overhead.

Later in high school I became more interested in girls and less interested in Tolkien. CS Lewis would have been disappointed in me.

I don’t recall thinking about adventures at all between my mid-teenage years and a few months ago, when I suddenly remembered riding through the Tidbinbilla hills and wishing I could see orcs peeping up above the granite boulders that litter the ground there.

What seems odd to me now is that it never occurred to me that riding my bike on an 80km loop in mostly deserted countryside, with no mobile phone, nobody knowing where I was, and with inexpertly driven cars occasionally whizzing past me at 100kph, was an adventure of its own. Not to mention the occasional attacks of dogs from below and magpies from above.

Nor did it occur to me that there was plenty of danger in the snakes that undoubtedly hid in various parts of the long grass through which I imaginatively snuck in my primary school war games, or the stones that my friends and I would occasionally hurl in one another’s direction, pretending they were grenades (‘oh to have a real live grenade!’).

In those days we had freedom that kids these days can only dream of. We could go wherever we liked, and do what we wanted as long as it wasn’t something likely to raise the ire of our parents or the police, or if it was, then as long as they didn’t find out about it. But we lamented the lack of smugglers and orcs in our lives. Oh, dreary existence that has no such pantomime baddies to liven it up!

Not that there weren’t real baddies. I remember Barry the Bully at primary school (not his real name), a lumbering, brutish lad whose only means of expressing himself seemed to be to thump the daylights out of some unfortunate child of lesser stature who had the misfortune to wander nearby. I vaguely remember him pummelling me one day, surrounded by the usual ring of excited nine-year olds looking on. I suppose I could have considered that an adventure, but somehow I didn’t. Like most of my schoolmates I feared Barry then. Looking back now, I can only feel compassion. I wonder what sort of life he has now, and if he is still alive. I fear he may not be flourishing, but I may be wrong. Barry wasn’t really bad. He was just an inexorable product of his genes and his environment, and I suspect he suffered from his inability to interact with people except through violence, as much as others did.

There were lesser villains too, like the minor antagonists in a pantomime melodrama. The boys from the government school sometimes stole my school bag and tossed it from one to the other, to tease and punish me for being a Roman Catholic and going to the RC school. Then there were the boys at my school who mocked me for having so many patches on my hand-me-down shorts. I remember my mother once tearing down to our school in a rage and excoriating them for their teasing. I can’t remember what led up to that but I remember vividly the verbal tirade she unleashed on them and their quivering, shame-faced silence as they stood there being denounced. I don’t think they teased me any more. I suppose in that episode my mother was as much a hero of the adventure as Galahad or Lancelot, Jupiter Jones or Janet (Secret Seven) ever were.

Then there was the dreaded Mr F at junior high school. He was as violent as Wackford Squeers – another adventure villain that loomed with lurid clarity in my over-excited imagination. The main difference was that, unlike Squeers, Mr F would smile in a broad, friendly manner as he twisted your arm behind your back or lifted you out of your chair by the ears, with his stubby, nicotine-stained fingers. I think he saw this violence as some sort of game, expressing good-natured affection to the students. It was not malicious. Generally I bore him no resentment, and even quite liked him. There was only one occasion when I mentioned to my mother that I thought my arm might be broken because, after a particularly savage twisting, I couldn’t use it properly. It got better. Yet despite the Squeers-like violence (would Severus Snape be a modern-day equivalent?) it never occurred to me that these elements of colour in my life were as good as any Blytonian or Dickensian adventure. I still thought my life was bland.

When I was five we lived in Aberystwyth, Wales and my parents announced that we were going to move to Australia. This set off two fantastic trains of thought in my impressionable young mind.

Firstly, I imagined that Australia was a land covered with thick, dark jungle, and that we would live in a hut in a small clearing. The jungle would be full of snakes and whenever we went outdoors we would have to tread carefully to avoid being bitten.

Secondly, I remember resolving, standing next to the stove while dinner was being prepared, that our arrival in Australia would mark the beginning of a new life for me, and would be an opportunity for me to put my sins behind me and become the good boy that I wanted to be. Inculcation of Catholic Guilt began early in the RC church in those days, at least it did in Wales (those Welsh nuns were well fierce!). I can’t remember whether I ever recalled this resolution once we arrived in Australia. Regardless, the resolution did not seem to be fulfilled. A couple of years later I was as guilt-ridden as every RC boy is expected to be.

One would think that moving to a jungle-filled, snake-infested, primitive land where one seeks to purify one’s soul from its many misdeeds contains many of the elements of a classic adventure. But again I didn’t see it that way then. Snakes and pious aspirations are all very well, but where were the smugglers?

Later teenage years and university have different sources of excitement from boyhood: discovering girls, discovering sex, discovering algebraic topology.

I travelled a lot after leaving school, in a gap year, in university holidays and after leaving uni. I travelled through many lands: Europe, Morocco, India, South-East Asia, Iran, Pakistan. I was mostly on my own and always on a shoe-string budget, sleeping and eating in some very run-down places and encountering many dicey situations – recklessly driven buses careering on two wheels around U-bends on precipitous mountain passes, enduring dysentery and fever in a lonely concrete hotel room, sinister strangers in railway carriages trying to show me pornographic pictures and suggesting mutual exploration of what they depict, crossing the Iranian border with US bank notes hidden in my shoe to avoid the extortionate exchange rate required by the Iranian border controls (and wondering what they’d do to me if they found them). I would have described such things as an experience, but the word adventure never occurred to me. Adventures happen to other people, and usually only in books. Not to me.

When one grows up – whenever that is, some time between the age of 25 and 40 for me – one has other challenging, frightening and exciting experiences. Accompanying one’s partner through the experience of childbirth. Raising a child. Buying a house. Moving across the world to live and work in another country. Most people know what these experiences are like. As a five year old, I would have found the contemplation of such experiences terrifying, yet there I was wishing I could chase smugglers in Cornish caves, or dodge German machine-gun fire as I leaped from foxhole to another.

When we middle-aged people look back over our life to date, there will in most cases be plenty of exciting, surprising, dangerous events, in between the humdrum and routine. Yet in my case at least, I often saw the danger or the challenge in a negative light at the time, wishing it were not there. I have only recently realised how contrary this is to my childhood wish for adventures, a wish that surely some other children must share. The only things I can think of that are missing from real-life experiences, compared to the Secret Seven or Harry Potter, are the presence of magic, and of people trying to kill, or at least imprison you. Yet modern science is far more wonderful, surprising and weird than any tale of magic or myth ever was, and even if people aren’t trying to kill us, we nevertheless live in the constant danger of being accidentally killed by a motor car or attacked by a virus or cancerous cell.

Perhaps if we could re-frame our perception of the vicissitudes of life as an adventure, rather than an imposition or a chore, we would appreciate it more. When we trip while jogging and seriously bark our elbows on concrete, as I did the other day, we can view that as another interesting experience, rather than reacting as ‘woe is me’. Maybe, if one day I have to undergo chemotherapy, or a lingering terminal illness, I will be able to even frame those as new experiences. We shall see. Perhaps even death, as that great philosopher Albus Dumbledore said, is “the next great adventure”.

Andrew Kirk. Bondi Junction, 3 July 2013