I published a post yesterday in which I spoke about the Martin-Zimmerman issue and how it relates to Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland.
I lived in Northern Ireland for three months, there specifically to study the Troubles from an anthropological perspective. That’s a funny word, perspective. Ultimately, it is this word that caused a snowball effect eventually culminating in my divorce from anthropology (yes, we were married at one point in time).
I’ve said before that truth is but a perspective, and New College is where I began to form this idea. There I learned of paradigms, theories, ethnocentricity, all of these things that temper the lenses through which we veiw the world. I learned that a disciplinary approach to problem solving can often create more problems because the trouble with approaching a problem with a paradigm is that it comes with an agenda.
I wasn’t in Northern Ireland to find truth, I was there to find data. Data that I would piece together based on a framework laid out for me by my field of study. I began to feel guilty, an emotional response that grew worse with every interview.
Interview, another funny word. I had more than one Irish person look me in the face and say, in one way or another, that they were essentially my human guinea pigs. After a while I had to concede that they were making a fair point. How can you meet someone on an even ground, heart to heart and one human to another, when you are not having a conversation with them but interviewing them. Conversations flow freely. Ideas grow, come to fruition, and die as they disperse seedlings for new ideas to take their place. Interviews follow a structure, adhere to paradigms, and place authority where none actually exists.
It took almost a year and a nervous breakdown for me to work up the courage to walk away from four years of study. I packed my bags and said goodbye to anthropology, soon finding an old lover anew: writing. I love stories, because stories have such a huge potential to unite people. The reason for this is simple: no good author ever set about writing a story based on detached observations of another because good writing depends on empathy; and empathy depends on emotional involvement and understanding.
Empathy, an amazing word and concept. Funnily enough, it was actually a young Irish man I met during my stay in Northern Ireland who first taught me the difference between the words sympathy and empathy. He is wiser than I realized at the time, and I was far from as smart as I thought I was. Sympathy, he said, is when you feel sorry for someone else. Empathy is when you understand what they are going through. At the time I took his words at face value, but now I’m beginning to understand their deeper meaning. The academic research I was doing was born of sympathy-laden interest. I was rubber-necking anthropologically.
I began to understand the concept of empathy better as I began to learn of the real connections between Northern Ireland, Irish history, and that of the Civil Rights movement and struggle for freedom in the United States. As it turns out, we have more in common than I originally realized. And the connections between our separate struggles to end the cycles created by colonial-era hegemony can be traced all the way back to the days of Frederick Douglas. I began to realize how the tendency to draw lines between each other where none really existed were the same, only in Northern Ireland those lines arose between Irish Catholic and English Protestant. Our Civil Rights movements even share common ancestors and inspirations.
While learning of these things I began to realize just how arrogant and asinine I must have seemed when talking with people in Northern Ireland. Here I was, a young American student come to study the deepest pains of their history without even understanding the ways in which we were connected. Armed with methodology and paradigm, I set about to make sense of things that are senseless. Power struggles are senseless. Our attempts to arm ourselves with academia is a symptom of how desperate we are to make sense of this senselessness. It adds degrees of separation to deep-rooted pain, guilt, and anger: all of which arise from fear.
I’m afraid. I’m afraid that I will never see a day that is not marked by the suffering and death of nameless thousands, in my country and afar. I’m afraid that neocolonialism will never end. I’m afraid that my countrymen will easily give up their freedoms for technological conveniences and the false promise of safety.
I’m afraid that we will never truly understand each other, that we will never truly be empathetic of one another, that we will continue to allow our perceived differences to be used against us as we use them against each other.
Being afraid is not what matters. What matters is allowing that fear to dictate our actions, beliefs, and perceptions. We are social animals at heart. In the essay Society and Personality, Albert Einstein wrote:
When we survey our lives and endeavors we soon observe that almost the whole of our actions and desires are bound up with the existence of other human beings. We see that our whole nature resembles that of the social animals. We eat food that others have grown, wear clothes that others have made, live in houses that others have built. The greater part of our knowledge and beliefs has been communicated to us by other people through the medium of a language which others have created.
We are social animals. While advancement happens through the ideas of individuals, individuals are a product of their society. Einstein states it this way in the same essay:
The individual is what he is and has the significance that he has not so much in virtue of his individuality, but rather as a member of a great human society, which directs his material and spiritual existence from the cradle to the grave.
From womb to tomb we are bound to others. The things we do and say, the way we approach problems; these things have effects that reach far into the next generations. We owe it to ourselves, each other, and future generations to set aside our fear and our differences. This is not a new idea, and it is time we actually began to honor it as a real possibility so that it can become a possible reality. To quote Albert Einstein’s essay Society and Personality one last time:
. . .we will hope that future historians will explain the morbid symptoms of present-day society as the childhood ailments of an aspiring humanity due entirely to the excessive speed at which civilization was advancing.
SPOILER ALERT: ENDING SCENE FROM CLOUD ATLAS:
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