WIT welcomes Kathryn Bradford Heidelberger as a guest poster. Her full bio is available on her first post with our blog.
In this cultural season, we are saturated with empathy; or, at the very least, empathy is in demand.1 The hit podcast S-Town was lauded as a “monument to empathy.” A common critique that many have leveled against urban-dwelling liberals in the post-election season is that they have failed to show empathy toward rural-dwelling Trump voters, instead choosing to isolate themselves in like-minded bubbles. It’s a critique I level against myself. For his part, short story writer turned novelist George Saunders spends over 300 pages in his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, plumbing the depths empathy, weaving together 162 ghostly voices to create a tapestry in praise of empathy’s ability to make us more human, even after death.2
Empathy asks that we proverbially walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. And, on Saunders view, empathy is a deeply intimate experience of entering another’s life, sitting with another’s experience, making it your own. But I want to know what happens after that intimate encounter. I want to know if empathy alone is sufficient to inspire the kind of change, progress, and self-improvement that Saunders so compellingly presents in his novel, and that many in our current cultural moment seek as the antidote to political divisiveness. At its best, I think empathy can do these things. But I also fear that empathy has a tendency to become myopic, hindering us from receiving others with all their shadow and light, unable to tell the difference.
Saunders himself provides us with an interesting case study for these concerns. In Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders presents a beautiful and compelling description of the empathetic process. Using the occasion of President Lincoln’s son’s death as a backdrop, Saunders crafts a cacophonic story through the perspective of graveyard-dwelling, ghost-like beings who exist in a purgatorial state. I call the story “cacophonic” because the chorus of 162 ghosts is given the lion’s share of the spotlight in the novel. Slaveholder and enslaved, reverend and drunkard, millionaire and pauper, all crammed in this ethereal space of their own making. The one thing all the ghosts have in common is their inability to acknowledge that they are in fact dead, claiming instead that they are merely sick. Acceptance of their true condition allows them to leave the bardo and cross over into the unknown next.
Two of the ghosts, Roger Bevins III and Hans Vollman, decide to enter into Lincoln’s body, just to see what he’s like. Upon entering, the ghosts feel “a touch of prairie about the fellow,” they hear Lincoln’s anguished and grieving thoughts on his lost son, finally hearing Lincoln desire to “think of him, when I do, as being in some bright place, free of suffering, resplendent in a new mode of being.”3 Vollman and Bevins know all to well that Willie is very much not in a resplendent state of being, given their half-existence in the gloomy graveyard. As they are in Lincoln, Vollman and Bevins begin to see reality as Lincoln sees it and as one another sees it—they meld into Lincoln’s and each other’s experiences, memories, smells—they live one another’s joys, pains, regrets. As they enter and exit out of one another’s life, they are overwhelmed by it all: “I would never fail to fully see him again: dear Mr. Bevins!” “Dear Mr. Vollman! I looked at him; he looked at me.” “We would forever be infused with some trace of one another forevermore.”4 The experience of entering another’s life forces them to alter their reality, to change, and to eventually accept that they are dead, and not simply sick. Empathy gives them courage to face death.
Saunders gives us a glimpse into what empathy looks like by depicting a literal account of crawling into another person’s skin. This intimate experience leaves an imprint of that person with us. And I think this is a more or less helpful way to think about empathy. But what I find fascinating is Saunders’s own failure to empathize. In a recent interview on his latest book, Saunders is asked by the interviewer, “Do you discuss politics with your friends and family who are Trump voters?” Saunders answers, “Not so much…I’m personally not very comfortable with fighting or with strife… I’m pretty comfortable with just getting along in whatever way I can, and I think they feel the same way about me.” He says this in defense of multiplicity—that a Trump voters can be a “wonderful granddad, or a baseball fan.” They may support a bigot, but they are not bigots themselves. While Saunders’s charitable attitude is admirable, it’s troubling that he suspends judgment in the name of comfortability and amicability.
This may simply sound like a live-and-let-live encounter, as opposed to an empathetic one. However, I think Saunders is engaging in a half-hearted empathetic attempt when he tries to see Trump voters as granddads and baseball fans, and not supporters of someone with whom Saunders has serious concerns. But this is where empathy fails us, I think. Empathy can allow us to pick and choose which parts of each other we’d like to be empathetic towards. It risks true engagement for the sake of emotional stability. Paul Bloom, a psychology professor at Yale, devotes a whole book arguing against empathy. Bloom observes that it is simply impossible to feel empathy for every single living thing on the planet, and trying to do so values singularity over larger moral and social structures. While I may not argue quite as forcefully against empathy as Bloom does, I do think he is right to point out the interplay between structural systems of injustice and personal feeling (or pity) for those injustices.
We need to have discerning empathy, not myopic empathy. Discerning empathy asks us to see individuals as they are in all their shadow and light and be able to distinguish shadow from light. Myopic empathy only looks at shadow or light or refuses to distinguish between the two. We need discernment because it enables us to look at the whole of a person in honesty and sincerity. But discernment needs empathy because it constantly asks that we keep our judgment tempered as we take in the whole of a person. While empathy alone can allow us to experience individual snippets of individual lives, empathy coupled with discernment reminds us of our human connectivity and wholeness.
Joseph Ratzinger’s insights on the resurrection of the dead and judgment in his book Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life are helpful here.5 Ratzinger makes an important observation about what it means to be human:
Every human being exists in himself and outside himself: everyone exists simultaneously in other people. What happens in one individual has an effect upon the whole of humanity, and what happens in humanity happens in the individual. ‘The Body of Christ’ means that all human beings are one organism, the destiny of the whole the proper destiny of each… Thus everyone is judged and reaches his definitive destiny after death. But his final place in the whole can be determined only when the total organism is complete.
Though there may be some similarities between Ratzinger’s notion of the interdependence of the body of Christ and Saunders’ development of empathy and connection, I think Ratzinger strikes a notably different chord. By emphasizing human interdependence and connectedness, what one does or how one acts does impact others. One may very well be a granddad or a baseball fan who also voted for Trump, or did any other number of disagreeable things. But Ratzinger reminds us that individual actions have communal ramifications. Ratzinger provides us with a way to think about how our individual actions leave lasting effects on our neighbors, to the point that our final resting place can only be determined when our neighbor’s place is determined, when creation’s place is determined. For Ratzinger, one’s individual judgment is incomplete until all have been judged. Focusing on individual encounters of empathy, while helpful starting points, don’t necessarily give us a way to care for the structures and systems that make up individual life.
This is why I use language of discernment as opposed to judgment, as Ratzinger does. On this side of the eschaton, empathy tied with discernment provides us with compassionate and critical means of engaging with one another. Total judgment is reserved for the moment beyond the grave, standing shoulder to shoulder with our neighbors.
Ultimately, the form of Saunders’s novel betrays a kind of myopic empathy. The cacophony of 162 ghost voices is left ringing in the reader’s ear with no apparent resolution or judgment given to the ghosts. Ratzinger shows us that it is insufficient to present that cacophony of voices without due consideration of the effects each voice has upon another.
- The photo used on this post is by Ashim D’Silva on Unsplash. ↩
- George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo: A Novel (Waterville, ME: Thorndike Press, 2017). ↩
- Saunders, 158. ↩
- Saunders, 173. ↩
- Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1988), 190. ↩