Sunday, July 12, 2015

No empathy for Ivan Ilyich?

I have gotten to the halfway mark in The Death of Ivan Ilyich, and I am being simultaneously offered real world checks to go with the fictionalized world of Tolstoy's.

A couple of days ago, father informed me about a death in the extended family of a 67-year old.  "Sixty-seven is young for these days" he said.  I wonder how he feels to bear witness to younger people, including his son-n-law, dying.  I recalled my graduate school professor remarking once, in a rare genuinely revealing moment, about his emotional difficulty in delivering the eulogy for a colleague who was twenty years his junior.

Yesterday, another update from father about another death.  Maybe I should stop calling my parents!  This time, it was about the demise of a 94-year old.  "He lived a full life" father said as he recalled various events related to the departed.

If death after a "full life" is acceptable, then what do we mean by a full life?  When do we reach that "full life" status?

Tolstoy's Ivan Ilyich was having a wonderfully fulfilling life.  "And everything went on like that, without any change, and everything was very good."   Things started going bad after a fall that he didn't think mattered at all.  It started with a pain.  A mysterious pain.  And then, just like that, things changed.
And he had to live like that on the brink of the abyss, all alone, without a single person who could understand and take pity on him.
Tolstoy has set things up well, and from now on it will be Ivan Ilyich's introspective reflections on "Is there any meaning in my life that wouldn't be destroyed by the death that inevitably awaits me?"

When somebody else is suffering, moral questions arise in plenty.  What exactly am I supposed to about that other person?  What is the relationship between empathy and morality?
Not only does empathy seem to fail when it is needed most, but it also appears to play favorites.
If you have very good relationships with your family, you then feel their pain and suffering.  You might even cry because you can't bear to watch them in agony.  The neighbor across the hallway might be ill too, but we don't cry over their agony.  We play favorites?  Are we morally on solid grounds when we behave that way with different people?
Inspired by a competing body of recent research, we believe that empathy is a choice that we make whether to extend ourselves to others. The “limits” to our empathy are merely apparent, and can change, sometimes drastically, depending on what we want to feel.
Apparently research shows that we choose to empathize with others.  It is a choice that we make.  Ivan Ilyich is beginning to suffer from his illness and he is beginning to sense that his wife, daughter, and friends, do not seem to "understand and take pity on him."  Tolstoy's "humanities" and today's "science" seem to agree on human behavior.
Yes, there are many situations in which empathy appears to be limited in its scope, but this is not a deficiency in the emotion itself. In our view, empathy is only as limited as we choose it to be.
As I work my way towards the rest of The Death of Ivan Ilyich, I am sure I will understand a lot more about the human condition.  As you can imagine by now, understanding this existence is a part of my own "full life."


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