How does the personal connect to the professional? When do we introduce the inner self to the public world and put it on display? And if we do, will we be understood, taunted, ignored? We all wrestle with these questions every day.
Cécile Alduy, in a comment to my post on the isolation of American men, referred to an incident in her own life. In a subsequent private exchange with her I learned how debilitating illness affected her personal and professional life.
This email exchange made me reconsider my own little tug-of-war over introducing the personal into the scholarly. In the past, I have been wary of the celebration of personal experience in scholarship, when confession gets in the way of scholarly analysis, when it is used as proof for a particular investigation. In my first post on Arcade I wrote about the fetishization of autobiography and the pressure writers felt, especially in commercial publishing, to approach their subject matter from personal perspectives.
Today the personal seems to be everywhere. The convergence of media has allowed everyone to participate in mass self-communication. Whereas in the past the few have had the resources to disseminate information and entertainment to the many, now we all can broadcast ourselves to the world.
But I was never against the engagement of the personal. Let me explain. This past January I had intended to begin my talk at the University of Michigan with a dedication to a group of people who tirelessly took care of me after a medical emergency. I had promised myself a year earlier, after my original lecture in Ann Arbor had been cancelled, that, were I able to deliver it again, I would dedicate it to the nurses of the intensive care unit of the Ohio State University Hospital. I was grateful for their empathy.
In late December of 2009 I was struck with a cerebral hemorrhage out of the blue that laid me low in the hospital for two weeks. (Dear Reader, I survived and six months later went on a hike to Matchu Pitchu with my two sons.)
Now standing in front of the audience in Ann Arbor I was caught on the horns of a dilemma. My heart urged me to fulfill my promise of dedicating the talk to my nurses, but the voice of a more cerebral self-consciousness warned me that such a beginning might misfire. Silently, I tried it out: “ I had a cerebral hemorrhage and want to thank my nurses, but now on to Montaigne.” Would it be fair to present those listening with this shocking personal detail? And how then to continue, to change the subject drastically, to switch modes from personal crisis to professional analysis? Would my listeners see the dedication as unfair attempt to entangle them in a personal narrative, to gain their sympathy, to strain their patience? Would they find the mention out of place at this public occasion, named for a donor who was sitting in front of me? No, I could not stand that at all. Discretion led me to keep my dedication unspoken and to follow the traditional rules of academic decorum.
Then there was the shame and I felt about my illness. Why bring it up again for open scrutiny? Why do people need to hear this at a lecture? Why would it matter in any case since the nurses were not there to hear it?
But it mattered to me because I had made the promise. So I lost nerve and began by thanking my hosts and the audience. As the winter sun cut through the window to my right, I assured myself that I would make my small announcement at the end of the lecture itself. My foot tapped against the perspiring Dasani bottle. Then I thought I would give the dedication after the questions and before the reception. That certainly would be more appropriate. No, again. The dedication was left undone, then and forever.
My failure to make good on my promise has remained with me, like a little absence, the cavity of a missing tooth your tongue worries about with slight annoyance and reminiscence.
The dilemma reemerged for me in the exchange with Cécile Alduy. Her remarks and those of other readers made me realize again what a brief respite it is, from the world of work and commentary, to unlock—however slightly—that secluded self. What arose from this exchange was not a wave of self-indulgence but a chain of stories, a linkage of empathic solidarity.
Empathy, I have come to realize, expresses the associative characteristic of social life. It means you are united with someone else and not isolated in your own self. You are who you are connected to, conscious of your link to other human beings. Empathy is the metaphor for human coexistence.
This personal experience with illness and my work on literature and friendship have led me to affirm that, in a world of waste, want, and war, empathy is our most valuable natural resource. The capacity to put yourself into someone else’s shoes, to understand her position, to see his point of view is ultimately a literary quality, a tool of the imagination.
And the Internet, as I have written here before, with its disembodied form of communication enables the realization of this empathic/literary consciousness. For it allows people, who have never met before, to exchange stories and pool their energies to confront a host of problems from illness to war to global warming in the way Jeremy Rifkin explains in The Empathic Civilization. The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis.
To paraphrase the Beatles, what the world needs now is empathy.