In 1970 Stephen Stills (of Crosby, Stills and Nash) released his debut, self-titled album. The lead single from that album was “Love The One You’re With”. The line most of us remember from this delightfully simple song is this: “if you can’t be with the one you love, honey, love the one you’re with.” This catchy snippet of practical wisdom has likely inspired a lot of relationship decisions over the years. Some of them were probably better than others.
As with all art, there are a number of ways to interpret the message of this song. I’m going to propose the interpretation that is most obvious to me: focus on the here and now, and pretty soon you’ll begin to notice how much value there is in the present moment. When you reach into the past, into the future, beyond what is presently known, dissatisfaction and anxiety threaten to overwhelm you. Practice seeing value in the moment, and you’ll realize you needn’t reach so far beyond yourself for the good things life has to offer.
If you agree that this interpretation is somewhere in the ballpark of what Stills intended, then you’ll also have to agree that he was not the progenitor of this idea. The practice of mindfulness—of being intentionally aware of one’s ongoing, present experiences — plays a central role in buddhisms that were popular in America in the 1960’s and 1970’s (and are still popular today). I have nothing but respect for mindfulness practice and the associated philosophies. I say this because I am about to change the subject, and this change of subject is not because I think eastern philosophies lack value, or that Stills didn’t actually have anything worthwhile to say. Rather, I am changing the subject because I am in love with a fictional character and as much as I’d like to think the wisdom of Stills applies to my predicament, I simply cannot accept that it does. Here’s why.
The apparent absence in the actual world of the remarkable collection of qualities that defines the man I love is a state of affairs that harms all of us. Let me say that in a more precise way: the fact that the man I love doesn’t actually exist constitutes a harm for the world. The story I want to tell you is a story about how I’ve come to embrace an alteration of Still’s words in a way that might change this unfortunate state of affairs. The altered phrase is this: if you can’t be with the one you love, then be the one you love.
Admittedly, this catchphrase is not really catchy. And when you say it out loud it’s sorely lacking in pleasing rhythmic qualities; no one would want to sing it. And it doesn’t really have the immediate, imposing presence of great wisdom. But the story behind this odd little string of words is worth hearing, so let me tell it to you. You might see something of yourself between these words. My story, after all, begins like so many others.
I know Evil. One day it slipped into the skin of my very best friend — my brother— then drove me like a dust storm into the desert. I know the half-dead, half-enraged blackness of its gaze. I feel the guttural, godless scream that left permanent caves in my speech. I taste the desiccated air that left me in a shallow grave at the end of an old dirt road. I can still feel the chasm of perfect stillness between my self and my body, something I cannot explain. And sometimes I still believe what I was told: that no one would find my body because no one cared enough to look for me.
I lived with undiagnosed and untreated PTSD for over 10 years. I look back with disbelief at how well I kept things together in spite of my condition. Not only did I keep my life from going completely off the rails, but I was quite productive. Even so, death clung to me. Every experience was imbued with a sense of detachment, isolation, and a severe coldness that penetrated so thoroughly that nothing moved in my deepest place. The depths: nothing but hollow impressions, indelible imprints of a shattered self that wasn’t strong enough to climb out of the grave.
During that long winter I felt like I was interacting with people through a dimensional barrier; never fully present, never experiencing the warmth of companionship. I spent entire days on the living room floor in the fetal position overcome with the psychic version of phantom limb pain; inescapably bound to my dying self. Sometimes, I’d sit hunched over in the shower with my head on my knees until the hot water ran out, and then crawl back into a bed thick with blankets and heat packs. It wasn’t the kind of warmth that I needed but it was all I had, even though I was surrounded by friends.
PTSD never goes away, but my condition is now very well-managed. I have the good fortune of excellent medical care and considerable ongoing investments of emotional and intellectual resources by my family, trauma therapist, PhD advisors, and friends. But I still struggle periodically with overwhelming anxiety, fear, and depression. These (mercifully brief) bouts are usually triggered by feelings of helplessness. No one likes to feel helpless, but normal people respond differently than we, the traumatized, do. There is no distinctive pattern of responses that all traumatized persons have in common (which is why PTSD can be so hard to treat), but it commonly causes us to shut down emotionally; a slow fall into an icy grave.
The girl who is fierce and opinionated and determined to live life on her own terms is still here, she’s still me, and she’s always being thrown into a cold grave against her will. The experience is maddening. The last oil painting I started (and have yet to finish) is an abstract of fire and light emerging from the crushing weight of a glacier. It’s my deepest desire: to be a force in the world rather than a block in the deepfreeze.
Enter Steve Rogers. (Spoiler: Melting ensued…)
This past summer I went to see Spiderman: Homecoming with friends who are much more knowledgeable of the Marvel Cinematic Universe than I. It was quickly apparent that having seen the earlier Marvel films would have enhanced the story. After the movie, I expressed as much to a friend who told me that all I really needed to do was watch Captain America: Civil War and I’d be caught up enough. It was available on Netflix so I watched it. Once again, it was quickly apparent that having seen the earlier Marvel films…
To make a long story short, I ended up going all the way back to Captain America: The First Avenger and watched everything after that in sequence over the period of about a week (confession: I skipped Iron Man 2 and 3). I don’t want what follows to depend on extensive knowledge of these films and their plots, so I am merely going to summarize the relevant points.
Steve Rogers is a short, skinny, physically unfit guy. At some point in the first Captain American movie someone refers to him as a 90 pound asthmatic. He’s certainly not an ideal specimen for military service. And yet, his deepest desire is to serve. His repeated attempts to enlist are met with rejection (this is WWII). He’s bullied by guys twice his size and ignored by women. He’s a quintessential nobody. Rogers’ first defining characteristic is this: he is constitutionally incapable of giving up, even when the odds are overwhelmingly not in his favor. His second defining characteristic is the fact that his desires (the whole lot of them) are not grounded in ideology, but in empathy. What do I mean by this? Let me explain.
Empathy is one of those states of being that the vast majority of us understand on an intuitive level but have a hard time explaining. In fact, it’s so difficult to articulate that philosophers and cognitive scientists can’t even agree on a single theory of empathy. Is it an emotion, a basic affective state, a type of interoceptive awareness or quasi-perception? Is it more than active perspective-taking? Is it emotional contagion? What distinguishes it from sympathy? The answers to these questions are not obvious. What is clear, however, is that there are currently about 5 theories vying for prominence in the literature, and all of them have some notable flaws. What they all have in common, however, is the characterization of the role that empathy plays in our social lives.
John Michael, a philosopher of cognitive science at Warwick University in England, meticulously picked out the features that all 5 theories of empathy have in common and formulated a list of qualities associated with empathy. According to Michaels, empathy is a state of being that has the following characteristics. First, it involves engagement with another person’s experience, which seems to require the capacity to perceive and accurately interpret the experiences of someone other than yourself. Second, it involves thinking about the same things as the person you are empathizing with, and being disposed to be affected by those thoughts in a way that reflects the unique perspective of the other person. Third, it involves a tendency to act toward the other person in a manner that respects their experiences, beliefs, needs, and desires. To do this effectively, one must be able to somewhat accurately predict another person’s mental states (e.g. Experiences, beliefs, needs, desires, etc.) from contextually salient clues like behavior, or through prior knowledge of that person. In short, empathy is the fundamental force behind social understanding.
So, back to Rogers…
Steve Rogers is incapable of giving up and he’s deeply empathetic. His third defining characteristic is probably a consequence of his empathy: his first instinct is always to protect and defend. This is, unfortunately, a dangerous impulse when you are short, skinny, and powerless.
If you don’t already know this, Steve Rogers becomes Captain America. His desire to serve impels him to volunteer to be a test-case for developers of a magical “super-soldier” serum. The serum transforms the body into a veritable killing machine but leaves the psychology intact. Powerlessness is transformed into power in seconds flat. Rogers steps out of his test-tube and back into the world with a body that people fantasize about having (on many levels), but that he recognizes as nothing more than the tool he needs to fully express his already indomitable character. This is what makes him remarkable above all else: his empathy prevents him from taking his privilege for granted.
The word ‘privilege’ is overused and widely misunderstood in contemporary social and political dialogue. So, to prevent further misunderstanding, I want to briefly provide an analysis of the notion as I will be using it. This is not intended to be a philosophical treatise, but sometimes philosophy can add clarity, so please bear with me for a few more paragraphs.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines privilege as follows: A special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group. The dictionary only tells us how the word ‘privilege’ is used but it doesn’t give a theory of what privilege is. In order to develop a theory, you have to explain a.) why privilege enables a person to make explicit or implicit demands on, and have expectations of, the non-privileged, and b.)why the non-privileged comply (or not) with the implicit or explicit demands and expectations of privilege.
Privilege is a state of being that is given form and content by specific social roles. We have lots and lots of social roles in contemporary American society. There are roles for everything you can imagine: age, gender, race, marital status, educational status, financial status, employment status, appearance, biological sex, profession, etc. Further, some of these roles are more robustly defined than others. So, for instance, the social role of being a sexy guy is much less structured and well-defined than the social role of being a father. We have social norms (rules) that tell us what value to assign to social roles, and who can fill them. For instance, the social role of being a caretaker for the elderly is much less valued (unfortunately) than being a high powered attorney, and being a man or being white are still more highly valued than being a woman or being black.
The value our norms assign to the various social roles a person occupies determines their level of privilege. Some people are only racially privileged, while others enjoy financial, racial, intellectual, and bodily privilege. Most of us are privileged in some ways but not in others. This leaves room for empathy. However, because the demands and expectations of privilege are not always explicit, people who occupy privileged positions frequently don’t realize that they do until something disrupts their expectations (usually when a person of perceived lower status refuses to comply with a demand). The first reaction to disrupted expectations is to take offense because the disruption feels like a personal assault.
Sometimes compliance with the demands and expectations of privilege is coercive, which means that you comply because of a perceived threat of something bad happening to you if you don’t. The most obvious example of this is the racial privilege that dominated the Jim Crow south. Sometimes, however, compliance with the demands and expectations of privilege is grounded in recognition and respect. A great example of a fitting response to well-grounded privilege takes place in the first Avengers movie. During an alien invasion Rogers orders a city police officer to follow a strategic defensive plan to protect the people. The cop responds with, “why the hell should I take orders from you?” Rogers’ response is simple, effective, and entirely non-verbal. He beats the crap out of some aliens as if to say “here’s the basis of my privilege: I am a strategic killing machine. If you care about the safety of these people you’ll obey me now.” The cop jumps into action. The scene is great, by the way. Look it up on youtube if you haven’t already seen it.
Privilege is not essentially bad. Few things are. However, it can be bad if it’s grounded in empirically false claims (e.g. That whites are intellectually or morally superior to blacks, that women are not biologically disposed toward analytic thought, etc.). Further, privilege always confers power and power can be misused. Coercive privilege, for instance, never involves a strategic plan to help people in need. Rather, it involves an elaborate defensive strategy to keep the privileged secure in their powerful positions.
Steve Rogers never abuses his privilege. I am sure many people have already imagined all of the highly creative ways that Rogers could make use of his physique for power and pleasure. But if those thoughts ever cross his mind he never shows it. Why? A lot of people say that it’s because he remembers what it’s like to be the little guy, the nobody. I disagree. That alone is no guarantee that a person won’t become corrupt with the power of privilege once they have it. Often times it’s the fact that someone felt small and insignificant that motivates them to seek and abuse power. I think, rather, that it was Rogers’ empathy that prevented him from seeing himself as anything but a protector of humanity—empathy that he had from the very beginning. It was empathy, after all, that made him step into that test tube without knowing for sure what the outcome would be. He understood what the world needed and he was willing to risk everything to help satisfy that need. His empathy may be informed by knowledge of helplessness, but it is not the experience helplessness itself that makes him treat his privilege appropriately.
Steve Rogers is a nearly perfect specimen of humanity. You really get a sense of this when he’s laying in a hospital bed riddled with bullet wounds inflicted by the best friend he’s trying to save. The first thing he does when he wakes up is affirm Sam’s loyalty and friendship with a personal joke. He could read the situation and acted appropriately. When I say that he’s a nearly perfect specimen of humanity, I don’t mean that he is a perfect person —psychopaths are persons, and may even be exemplars of personhood, but they are utterly inhuman. What I mean by ‘humanity’ is this: that which makes us socially and morally distinctive among all of the animals.
To be honest, I am not entirely sure what makes us human in the relevant sense. But my experience with a psychopath in the Arizona desert left me certain about one thing: what it’s like to be de-humanized by evil. Sometimes we can begin to uncover what something is by drawing a boundary with clear examples of what it is not. Talking about my trauma, my PTSD, my love for a fictional character who gave me warmth exactly when I needed it, are ways of carving out the negative space around the idea of humanity. Steve Rogers gave me the slow burn I needed to start this process. Now I’m offering some of that warmth to you.
I’m in love with a fictional character. What makes him so lovable is something I really started to understand and fully embody after years of trauma therapy. I have empathy. A lot of it, actually. The beautiful thing is that I’m not the only one. The people who brought Steve Rogers to life obviously couldn’t have done it so well if they didn’t already have a deep understanding of the things I’ve been talking about. The people who are out there every day fighting injustice in the trenches know what I’m talking about. You, dear reader, know what I’m talking about. Steve Rogers doesn’t exist, but we do and the world needs us to come together into a strategic defense machine, powered by a deep and rich social understandings, to protect what makes us human. When we are motivated by empathy, rather than ideology, we can craft much more flexible responses to direct and indirect attacks on humanity. Right now, we need to be flexible and creative to be effective. We need to actively cultivate empathy in ourselves and others. And then maybe, just maybe, the phrases “be the one you love” and “love the one you’re with” will both refer to the same thing in the end.
Special thanks to my trauma therapist, Maureen, for encouraging me to embrace and explore my feelings about Steve Rogers. Also, many thanks to my lovely friend Alley for making sure that what I say doesn’t suck. Finally, thanks to my friend and colleague Damon for showing me where the sharing buttons live on WordPress. Sharing is caring.
If you like this post please share it on social media with the hashtag #EmpathyNotIdeology and lend your voice to the struggle against dehumanization.
Also, you can follow Deep Web on Twitter.
Next Week: are there moral monsters and are they subhuman? How do we distinguish monsters from ordinary human beings who are simply morally misguided by false beliefs, irrational desires, or situationally inappropriate attitudes? I’ll explore this topic in in Dungeons and Dragons: The Making of a Monster.