Empathy, our social contracts and our world perspective

posted by Jeff | Friday, March 13, 2020, 12:15 AM | comments: 0

I've been talking a bit with people lately about my love for Armchair Expert, the podcast that Dax Shepard does with his adorable "soulmate" Monica Padman. (Full disclosure, I've always had a thing for Indian women, and redheads, but genetically, these two things do not mix in real life. EDIT: I was wrong about this.) If you don't know Dax from Parenthood or Baby Mama, he's the husband of Kristen Bell, who is Veronica Fucking Mars. Dax is, as it turns out, an extraordinary interviewer and amateur anthropologist. Monica and her friend Jess have created a sub-series in the podcast called Monica and Jess Love Boys, and it too is fascinating. Jess is gay, 40-something, and has sex with a lot of guys, and Monica is 30 and hopelessly single. Their sub-series is all about the reasons they're single for polar-opposite reasons. It's fascinating. Seriously, listen to it.

In the third episode of this sub-series, Kristen Bell calls the pair out on some of their self-inflicted limitations. She does so from the angle of having worked through her own issues, and to say that Dax and Kristen are the best kind of human beings on the planet doesn't quite capture it. She points out a few things about her own world view. First, she indicates that if Dax were ever to cheat on her, she wouldn't personally believe that it was about her as much as she would try to understand what it is about his life that would cause him to seek that relationship. Her generosity in this sense is astonishing. Second, she says that a lot of the social contracts we adhere to are societal in nature, including the thing about cheating, and that we shouldn't automatically try to make them about us. She gave the example of how Dax has not simply cast aside his previous relationship of nine years and catches up with his ex at least annually. That one I really identified with, because I've had really just four "significant" relationships in my life, and Diana has met them all three (and vacationed with two). I love these women as essential parts of my life, even if it's not romantic in nature. That Bell can be that generous and empathetic deserves many hat tips.

My point is not that I'm looking for an excuse to cheat or anything like that, but rather that Kristen Bell exhibits extraordinary empathy. She removes her own ego and value system to do her best to understand other people. I can't do that the way she does. I want to, but I know I fail at it much of the time. Humans have infinitely different experiences, and they shape who we are, for better or worse. Isn't the first step in getting along to accept that?

In recent weeks, I've tried to understand this in terms of our politics. Sure, some people are in fact horrible racist people, but it's not fair to believe that every Trump supporter is racist, even if they support a racist. Watching the Democratic primaries, the passion for the more progressive candidates is often driven by circumstance, even if those candidates don't have the broadest appeal. I'm finally getting that.

The coronovirus outbreak has certainly brought this to a new level. Statistically speaking, it's reasonably likely that my family will get it and be fine. It's also going to have dramatic effects on communities that I care about, including the Broadway/theater community, and where I live, given the catastrophic impact on service economies (I live in Orlando, so you can do that math). I'm also watching my family and friends in Seattle, the worst place to be in the US at the moment, see their lives upended. (EDIT: At least Disney and NBCUniversal will pay their people through the closures.)

Here at Puzzoni World Headquarters, 2020 was already pretty much a shit show, for a half-dozen reasons I don't need to share online. Like any human, we all have our shit to deal with. In the last 24 hours I've had to cancel a trip and explain to a kid with ASD why we had to change plans, and you can imagine how that went. I wish that was it.

So in the mean time, you bet I'm going to make jokes about my 401k bottoming out, my liquor stash, being holed up with a 10-year-old on spring break, and whatever else crosses my mind. You know why? Because I don't know what else to do. I'm spent. I'm not interested in having some pissing contest about how hard my life is relative to anyone else's, because I've had years of therapy to know that keeping score is bullshit. Our reality is our own.

Last fall, Obama made this great comment about how people needed to stop trying to out-woke each other out of this sense of righteous activism. At the time, I thought he was being a little harsh, but he was right. We're not going to change shit if we keep trying to make a point at the expense of others.


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