Minimizing the pain of others is natural, in that it’s savage. It begins with the impulse to laugh at slapstick and ends with genocide. We are all of us somewhere in between.
Thoughts like these point out the essential error bound up in the term “thought leadership.” Thoughts are cats and can’t be lead in any meaningful way. Not without a tremendous amount of force, which has never ended well either.
A great deal of pressure has been applied to try to reign in empathy in Western culture, beginning around the time of the lancing of the dot com bubble. Would it be callous to call it the dot com boil?
This is a measurable phenomenon. U Michigan’s Dr. Sara Konrath conducted a study titled “Changes in Dispositional Empathy in American College Students Over Time: A Meta-Analysis.” She concluded that “college students today are 40 percent less empathetic than those of 30 years ago, with the numbers plunging primarily after 2000.”
It’s not just college students. The zeitgeist clearly states: “Empathy is for your tribe only.”
This is a serious problem, but it tends to manifests as humor – most prominently in the meme known as First World Problems.
In Weird Al Yankovic’s seminal work on the subject, encapsulating the trope eponymously, he presented a scattering of popular examples:
“I couldn’t order off the breakfast menu, cause I slept in ’til two/
Then I filled up on bread, didn’t leave any room for tiramisu”
“My barista didn’t even bother to make a design in the foam on the top of my vanilla latte.”
“My house is so big, I can’t get WiFi in the kitchen/
I had to buy something I didn’t even need just so I could qualify for free shipping on Amazon.”
“Can’t remember which car I drove to the mall/
My Sonicare won’t recharge, now I gotta brush my teeth like a Neanderthal”
Some of the memes crouching in the darkest corners of the Web are inspired, like:
We can share a good laugh and congratulate ourselves that we know what matters and don’t wallow in self-pity over trifles. Yet the real message behind it all is, “Your pain is ridiculous.”
It’s the same when my child cries because his playdate has ended. His anguish is excruciating and my poorly obscured indifference to his suffering hurts him treble-fold. It’s real psychological pain, and all pain is psychological because it’s all merely sensations in the brain. Physical injury doesn’t not hold primacy over mental injury. Those who preference the merely physical know nothing of life and deserve an epithet.
Ad astra per aspera (The only way to the stars is through pain.)
The meme of First World Problems is no more than the latest Punch and Judy show, which was by no means the first “slap stick” in the sad, tortured history of human comedy. Slapstick is funny as long as you stay in your reptile brain, which is a bit cramped but not a bad place to visit once in a while. It’s harder to laugh when you understand that humor comes from denigrating the pain of someone outside of whatever tribe you imagine yourself to be in at the moment. It’s natural, but so is murder.
This grim view of what makes us laugh is and will be (bet me on this) the world’s biggest problem. It’s also, perhaps, the World’s First Problem from the standpoint of Western literary chronology. That statement probably needs some unpacking.
The Ivy League’s Great American Critic, Harold Bloom, put together a stunning argument in The Book of J. Bloom and translator David Rosenberg disassembled the Pentateuch, which forms the basis of the Jewish Torah, the Christian Old Testament, and a holy book in Islam known as the Tawrat.
Since the 1800’s, scholars have recognized that the books of the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) were assembled and rewritten over centuries. Various strains of authorship emerged from textual analysis: the original author known as the Jahwehist or J; the Priestly writer called P; the more conservative author called the Elohist or E; and the Redactor or R, who was responsible for putting the books in their familiar arrangements.
Bloom unwound the threads and studied only the works of J. This convinced him that the author was a woman with a genius for storytelling, a facility for irony and one utterly blasphemous sense of humor. Bloom found her so delightful that he later decided she could only be Bathsheba, the mother of Solomon and the mysterious beauty that King David damned himself to win.
In The Book of J, after the world’s first couple are tricked into being evicted out of the Garden and into our world, the world’s first problem came from their children: Cain (the name mean “The Acquired”) snuffed out Abel (translation: “Breath”) over a trifle. It wasn’t a crime of passion. The murder arose out of simple irritation, like a careless and carless precursor of road rage.
Cain made an offering to Yahweh of vegetables instead of meat, and the Paleo Diet Deity was unmoved by the produce selection. It’s not specified how smug Abel was about securing upper level approval, but it was enough to set The Acquired off in the worst way. Dude, you’re flying into a murderous rage because your grandparents like your brother’s presents better than yours? Sounds like a First World Problem.
Here’s how the comedic, often slapstick, Book of J describes what happened next:
“Yahweh said to Cain, ‘Why wear a face so fallen? Look up: if you conceive good it is moving; if not good, sin is an open door, a demon is crouching there. It will rise to you, though you be above it.’
Cain was speaking to his brother Abel, and then it happened: out in the field, Cain turned to his brother, killing him.
Now, Yahweh said to Cain: ‘Where is your brother, Abel?’
‘I didn’t know it is I,’ he answered, ‘that am my brother’s watchman.’ “
Pause a moment because there’s a lot going on here. Gross irresponsibility. Self-righteousness wiseassery. Cold-blooded lying by omission. There’s also bit of moralistic misdirection as well, with the suggestion that Abel should be free to do as he pleases and Cain wouldn’t dream of holding him down. Except for the fact that Cain did hold him down and gave him a piece of his own mind, quite literally, by means of a heavy rock.
At its core, this is death by lack of empathy. Cain couldn’t feel his brother’s pain over his own stinging embarrassment. The sad coda to this tale is that Cain actually came out pretty well in the end. Although cursed with “homeless you will be on the land, blown in the wind,” Cain got a good job as an architect, named the city he built after his son, became the father of humanity, and spent the rest of his life protected by Yahweh with a symbol (perhaps on his head) so that no one would ever harm him. Fratricide wins. Some have even suggested that Cain was also cursed with not being able to die and eventually founded the recent vampire craze in Vancouver. I suppose that’s as likely as anything else.
Allegory or not, Cain’s blood still runs in us whenever we scoff without mercy at First World Problems. Humanity has gone down that road many times yet Cain’s question remains rhetorical. Perhaps Abel’s blood runs in us when we are so blindly sure of being right that we ignore the warning signs of social dysfunction.