What it Really Means
This pandemic quarantine shelter-in-place period has provided many people an opportunity to binge watch televisions shows and stream their favorite movies. I am not one to criticize if you got pulled into the Tiger King phenomenon. My personal choice to avoid that weirdness was facilitated by my refusal to renew my Netflix account after they doubled my monthly rate (admittedly complete pettiness on my part because there was no realistic expectation that I would pay just $6.99/month forever). Instead I have enjoyed movies on another streaming service, mostly re-watching old favorites that made some meaningful statement. Princess Bride’s overall statement may not seem so meaningful but I re-watched it because the character Vizzini is like the perfect exemplar of intellectual overconfidence.
Vizzini's death scene is infamous with the beginning of his demise being his declaration that Plato, Aristotle and Socrates are morons in comparison to his superior intellect. Confident that he has won the war of wits in guessing the goblet with the poison, he presumes the last laugh declaring, “"Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line"! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Ha ha ha...” before he keels over dead. However, antecedent to his demise, the early indicator of his intellectual hubris, was his repeated use of the word “inconceivable.” When the Man in Black pursuing them does not fall when the climbing rope is cut Vizzini declares it, “INCONCIEVABLE” to which Inigo Montoya admonishes, “You keep using that word: I don’t think it means what you think it means”. Inigo Montoya’s words deeply resonated with me because of some embarrassing moments of discovery of my own misconceptions, but also in seeing that level of embarrassing misunderstanding mirrored in The Artist.
Perhaps I would have been more like The Artist if I had decided to attend my back-up school as an art major instead of UC Davis as a Biochemistry and Biophysics major. We were eating lunch with the other Primero Dining Commons student staff before shift when he said the most cringe-worthy statement, “It is not easy being an artist and being so sensitive; I carry this burden of feeling so much. It is not easy feeling so much all the time.” Two hours later his behavior demonstrated that the word sensitive did not mean what he thought it meant.
As shift leader I assigned him to the dish room. On this particular day he was partnered with a tall blond girl from the Regional Occupational Program (ROP). Her freckles gave her a child-like visage despite her mature frame. She was devoid of any neural-stigmata (i.e. she had no noticeable features like Downs syndrome or microcephaly) which might make her condition noticeable, but clinically she was a person with mild intellectual disabilities. Midway through the shift I visited the dish-room and Blond-Girl was working the window where students placed their trays full of dishes, and after she rinsed them, The Artists was stacking them in dish racks and inserting them into the industrial dishwasher. All was right with the world until the harmonic convergence that caused most of the students to come to the dinning commons between 12:00 and 12:30 pm instead of spread out over our extended dining hours of 11:30 am to 2:00 pm. I quickly rallied helping prep more Monte Cristo sandwiches for the grill and then running food to the front to make sure supply met demand. We were running out of plates so I made a trip to the dish room, but I arrived too late. When I arrived the intake window was blocked by a haphazard pile of plates, bowls and cups and The Artist was screaming at Blond Girl: “WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU. ARE YOU STUPID OR SOMETHING? WHY CAN’T YOU DO YOUR JOB? WHAT ARE YOU A F@#$%#! MORON?”
I quickly intervened correcting The Artist, “That’s not necessary. It just got ugly here for a second. Let’s work together to clear the mess. I then swept the big pile to the left of the window and started organizing separate stacks of plates and bowls. This gave blond girl a chance to wipe the tears from her eyes and compose herself to resume working. I was so pissed off at The Artist that I felt the urge to visit violence upon him, but I controlled the urge. How could he make another person feel that way?
I was pissed off at The Artist because I could identify with how Blond-Girl felt. As I child I shared being devoid of neural-stigmata but possessing an intellectual disability. In fifth grade I literally ran away from the statements of my mother, “You are not ‘normal like the rest of the children” ending up twenty miles away. However my ultimate escape was to Germany with my father after my parents divorced. My mother said, “Your sisters and I are going to California. Your father is going to Germany. You can go to Germany with your father or you can come with me to California, but if you come with me to California and you act the way you do, I will have you institutionalized.” My intellectual disability was more of a lack of social intelligence, not reading verbal cues and subtleties of communication, not being able to make eye contact with people, and becoming emotionally overwhelmed in social situations like birthday parties or when my mother was screaming what was wrong with me. In that moment in the dish room I could see a bit of myself in Blond Girl as she was overwhelmed by the situation of someone venting their rage upon her. She surpassed me by finding the strength to respond, “YOU DON’T GET TO SAY THAT TO ME. . . YOU ARE NOT MY BOSS.” At the same time I was troubled because I could see myself as The Artist, also feeling overwhelmed but projecting his anxiety as rage upon another person. As a child I acted out my anxiety and rage by throwing and punching inanimate objects; I could do a lot of damage in a short amount of time. The Artist was directing his fear and rage at a person and not an object, but at least he was using words, harsh ugly words, but words.
I eventually learned to use words when I went to Germany with my father. My parents had bought many children’s books series but I preferred reading about science and history during grade school. Then in Germany I was left alone at night when my father worked and I started to read fiction. I tore through all the book series my parents had brought me up until that point and when I ran out of those I tore through all the books my father had from college literature classes (including reading all 1673 pages of the Collected Works of Emile Zola.) German television would go off at 10:00 pm and I would read until midnight. Two side effects of reading were becoming preoccupied with learning new words and becoming so enmeshed in the story that I internalized the experience of the characters on an emotional and psychological level, experiencing their fear when their lives were in peril and turning each page driven by their hope for the future. In retrospect reading probably sparked some development of empathy. While I continued to suck at non-verbal communication, I was able to examine life events and identify what people must be feeling. Thus by college I was able to recognize that Blond Girl must feel very threatened and hurt that The Artist was yelling at her, and that the Artist was just projecting as rage his own anxiety about the situation.
The Artist had humble-bragged about how sensitive he was. His use of the word was almost accurate as far as being “easily pained, annoyed, etc.” However he was only able to detect the changes in his internal milieu, his anxiousness, his fear. He was not actualizing the fuller definition of sensitivity in an interpersonal context, “having acute mental or emotional sensibility; aware of and responsive to the feelings of others.” He was not able to look beyond himself to see that Blond Girl was just as stressed as he was by the situation. He was missing the deeper implications of what it meant to be sensitive which was the rudiments of developing empathy, “the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.”
Over the years I have come to appreciate that there are different levels of empathy. For example William Jefferson Clinton had that very convincing way of looking directly in the camera and saying, “I Feel your pain [America].” In that moment he exhibited both cognitive and behavioral empathy, speaking and acting in a way consistent with the perceived sentiments of his audience. The next level of empathy is emotional. Apostle Paul when giving guidelines for putting love into action advises: “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another.” By learning how to rejoice in the accomplishments of others I get 8 billion draws at the joy lottery per day. There is no deeper connection to another’s humanity than to sit with them during their deepest loss and absorb their emotion to the point of being stunned to silence or even shedding a tear, not intentionally acting out their emotion but letting it emanate from your viscera.
That brings us to the final level of empathy experienced in your body, somatic empathy. I suppose the closest a man can come is sharing morning sickness with a pregnant wife. Recently, I did experience an emotional and physical change come over me when a friend responded to a message with a sound clip of him laughing a deep belly laugh at my funny quip.Still, for the consummate example of empathy on all levels I revisited another favorite movie, “The Green Mile.” John Coffey could sense the anguish that Paul Edgecome (aka Boss) was experiencing with his urinary tract infection. His level of empathy was such that he wanted to take away his pain by absorbing it into his own body, at the risk of being shot. Then when several days later Boss declared that The Mrs. was pleased several times over with the result John Coffee smiled celebrating a triumph that was not his own. John Coffey shares with Boss the experience being a pure empath when he shows him a glimpse of the consummate corruption of pure evil that afflicts Wild Bill’s soul. However before his death John Coffey ultimately expresses empathy for Boss in recognizing and yet assuaging the feelings Paul Edgecome has about being his executioner. The upside of complete empathy is the desire to heal others’ suffering but the downside is the ability to absorb the negative and even self-destructive emotions of other such as depression or anger. I have tried to sharpen my social intelligence. On my best days I probably achieve empathy on a cognitive and behavioral level, maybe breaching emotional. The experience of being a parent has imbued me with a certain cognitive empathy for the frustration my mother felt having a child who was less than fully neurotypical; I would have felt stressed and even overwhelmed raising a child like me. I aspire to enough empathy to be of help to others. “I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”
- For those playing along using the Bible home game:
- The Apostle Paul describes love in action: Rejoice with those who rejoice: (Romans 12:15)
Pressing on toward the goal (Philippians 3:13-14)
- For the movie fans
- "I feel your pain.“ — Bill Clinton, 1990s, Response to AIDS activist Bob Rafsky at the Laura Belle nightclub in Manhattan (March 27, 1992) (Quotepark.com)
- To read more about Derek V. Taylor's journey toward developing empathy read The Asha Chronicles or Days of Elijah