Love and Seeing.
A note on the superpower of human empathy.
Sister Sarah Joan: You write about Sacramento so affectionately and with such care.
Christine 'Lady Bird' McPherson: I was just describing it.
Sister Sarah Joan: Well it comes across as love.
Christine 'Lady Bird' McPherson: Sure, I guess I pay attention.
Sister Sarah Joan: Don't you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?
Human beings are not monsters, James Baldwin once observed, rather we do things to each other that we are not always aware of doing and the other person reacts in much the same way — “the thrust and the counter thrust.” We all have our own sensitivities and trigger points from our own painful life experiences, our own set of advantages and disadvantages in contrast with others, and our respective sensitivities very often trigger each other and make it harder to honor each other’s pain. Meanwhile, we almost always tend to focus on how other people have it better and we have it worse. The disparity between the quality of people’s lives is a major source of conflict and misunderstanding between us, and the ensuing drama is as helpless as it is inevitable.
And yet there may be no better feeling in the world than that of being truly seen by another person, which means that our pain is understood, since we can’t really know someone unless we know what they are struggling through. On the other hand, there may be no worse feeling than the sense of smallness that comes when another person refuses to see us in our fullness, effectively assaulting us with our own invisibility and cosmic insignificance. And there may be nothing harder, in the heat of a conflict, than to see the humanity of someone who is actively making us hurt, whether a stranger or our closest loved one. It is a cruel irony of human life that it is very often those we love most who cut us the deepest.
There’s a great line in Greta Gerwig’s 2017 film Lady Bird about how love and attention are the same – we give our attention, that is, ourselves, over to what we love – and so to give and withhold attention is to give and withhold love. Human seeing has this warming, disarming quality that can completely change the tone of our relationships and interactions. There is a point at which our suffering is seen as one through the mutual recognition of respective vulnerability, and what once stood between us, our pain, becomes the ultimate equalizer and can now bring us together. However different our experiences may be, it is from our essential human likeness that we can feel our way into the lives of other people without having lived them. That’s the superpower of human empathy. And if attention is love, then to attend to our own experience and the experiences of others is the ultimate expression of self and human love.
Alien Nation is a collection on human beings and the meaning of our suffering.