Against closure

To the contemporary mind, empathy is a sentiment, and therefore we must sentimentalize. We who think ourselves Christian should be trying to make some distance from this; to re-establish (my favourite word this month:) chastity in our empathetic responses. There is too much hugging. There is not enough quiet, selfless devotion. For the demonstrative empathy I observe, almost everywhere at the slightest call, is impure theatre. It is empty gestures; “virtue signals” comparable to many others on display. It reverses the moral requirement for hardness of head, and softness of heart.

It is heartless empathy. One does one’s emoting for the appropriate audience then as quickly as possible, one gets away.

Gentle reader will know that I am dispositionally unflattering to the mass media of entertainment and supposed “news.” Constant immersion in this filth (as Pope Benedict aptly called it) is perhaps the principal cause of our empathic showiness. Its deeper history was one with the growth of journalism and novels. Mimetic creatures, we emulate “feelings.” We “act,” not in the sense of doing anything useful, but of cheap theatre.

I know these things because I find them in myself. Though arguably less sogged with the popular culture than most, I know exactly how to behave in response to the usual cues for “support.” I have all the phrases down, and have mastered the touchy-feelies. I can’t bring myself to cry on cue, but can see how it is done; and how to climb down into our cultural swamp — where we grieve for people we never knew, in places we’ve never been, such as Las Vegas.

Yet I have noticed that the genuinely bereaved are alone. They are contemplative by the enforcement of nature. We demand that they acknowledge the unwanted gift of our emotional enclosure; that they be empathetic to the empathetic, as it were. The ugliest of these impositions comes under the label of “grief counselling.”

Women are the worst, but also the best, in the trying times of death and catastrophe. A good woman can see what work needs doing. She does it; gets help when needed. Leaves the men to stand around “being strong.” (The best of the men also make themselves useful.) Food always needs cooking; there is cleaning to be done; other details to take care of. Contemplation requires leisure; let the grieving have the leisure they require. They ask for no advice: give none. Don’t distract with offers of help that are both unnecessary and insincere. Instead be attentive to request, and act — invisibly. Be there, on call like a soldier; and like a good soldier, shut up.

To have loved, and lost, is a terrible adventure. Only we, the audience, want closure: want the movie to end before the night is out. Want a happy ending (“a celebration of life”). But for the protagonist of grief, the adventure is beginning. Let him emerge in due course with his gifts from the dead; with his own character enhanced by experience. Do not set an agenda for him.

The truest act of empathy for the grieving is to pray for the dead.