Empathic apes

Orangutan mother and kids. By Patrick Bouquet, Chantilly

Orangutan mother and kids. By Patrick Bouquet, Chantilly

The year is 1955, and far from the nearest village, somewhere within the Northwestern jungle region of Thailand, a 48 year-old Englishman and ordainee to the Buddhist monkhood sits quietly in studious attention. A few feet away, a female ape sits, arms carefully wrapped around some precious possession. The monk first chanced upon her the previous day, and due to the curiosity roused in observing her melancholic countenance, has remained respectfully nearby to her. A trust has developed, the ape sensing the monk’s gentle disposition and harmlessness. He really ought to be making his way to the village for alms, yet somehow senses that he should stay. A silent, palpable communication has developed between the two, and slowly, carefully and deliberately, the ape, her sadness still etched upon her face, finally unfolds her arms and offers a first sight of what she has been protecting. The monk slowly approaches to within a pace or two, sensing the invitation, only to catch sight of her lifeless and terribly deformed baby.

Two empathic apes, ancestrally and psychologically speaking, separated by little more in this moment than a distant, lineage-splitting, speciation event. Opposable thumbs, one hers and one his, in turn chase away a monk’s tear and a delicately mottled butterfly as it alights from the baby’s forehead, though cannot do the same for their conjoined feelings. Eyes meet, evincing as they do a deepening rush of sadness. Nothing can be done – is this what she is thinking in her way? In his unknowing, the saffron-robed wanderer radiates compassion, yet knows he has nothing to do with it; an offering from wisdom, not from the self. All that need be known arrives in the fullest of measures. What use now the venerable elder’s sagacity, his knowledge of emptiness, renunciation, equanimity, the void? She inhabits the void, is the void, her bleak knowing piercing its veils. Without turning, the monk slowly retreats, still reverently holding her gaze alongside a shared understanding. A slight suggestion of a bowing head betokens what passes between them.

It is the ability to empathise which in part distinguishes the psychopathic mind from its otherwise healthy state, and the primary orbit of empathy is that of feeling, not the mere gyrations of intellect. This is why many species of sentience can empathise, and we human animals are but one of them. We may erroneously presume that an ability to reflect upon others’ situations facilitates human empathic capacity; yet the state of those others and their situations need not be known as verbally abstracted objects in the mind – little stories packaged in words. We may just as well occupy others’ frames of reference by intuited means; and vitality, morbidity, distress and joy may all be recognised across species in differing ways; one need not indulge any anthropomorphisation, for clear evidence abounds. What is intuited here, or instinctively known, is the nature of the other’s felt emotional condition; and in this way, 60 years ago, the grieving mother ape and mendicant monk shared that intense experience – a wordless world of deep, primate feeling.

Engraving of Orangutan. By Willem Piso (1611-1678). Courtesy Wellcome Trust

Engraving of Orangutan. By Willem Piso (1611-1678). Courtesy Wellcome Trust

Was the mother ape empathic? Well, she came to appreciate the monk’s amity; she felt able to extend trust; she intuited the monk’s concern for her as well as his desire for understanding as to the reasons for, and significance of, her sadness; and finally, she recognised that the monk would feel something of that sadness in revealing its causes to him. This is all to say that she significantly placed herself within the monk’s frame of reference and innately understood that emotions can be matched in shared experience – the personal does not expire at the boundary of the body. Her empathic appreciation was sophisticated, certainly moreso than any psychopathic human ape. Now, one way to cheat the system is to mimic expressions and gestures, which results in a like proprioceptive sense. This means our feelings echo the other’s, so affecting an emotional contagion of sorts, whether volitionally induced or not. Yet neither jungle dweller did so, their empathic link being forged in mind purely intuitively, and silently.

Empathy subsists in knowledge; it is in part to know the mind of the other, and whilst its currency is both cognitive (knowing) and emotional (feeling) in nature, it is the latter that strengthens the connective link to altruistic and prosocial leanings, as well as ameliorating aggressive traits. Primates’ mirror-neuron systems help forge innate empathic leanings, with research suggesting that empathy evolved in part as a survival mechanism. Right now, tens of thousands of refugees are fleeing war-torn regions of Africa and the Middle East so as to seek sanctuary, and survival, in Europe. A few hours ago, a three year-old Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, drowned and was washed up on the shores of the Greek island of Kos. Equally tragically, his five year-old brother met a similar fate. Whilst Europe’s politicians exhibit an ongoing empathy gap, innocent children are dying. We live, not literally, though metaphorically, in a jungle, sharing the empathic faculties of the monk and bereaved mother ape. Are we wise enough to nurture the same?

Offering presence

Photography: Diego Junca, Bogota, Colombia

Photography: Diego Junca, Bogota, Colombia

She was lying on her bed in the middle of the afternoon, semi-conscious; yet that part of her which remained aware of the world would rather that it were not. This dear woman was seeing out her final months in a netherworld of darkened senses; all, that is, save for the searing illumination of her pain. I watched as she gently clasped her hands, half in prayer for her release, half as if to echo her fragile frame’s arthritic deformation. ‘Please, please help me, I need morphine; please help’, she mutters. A nearby nurse strides across; ‘not until four o’clock Doris, we can’t give you any more until then’. Moments later a kindly volunteer carer approaches, sits beside the bed and whilst gently stroking the old woman’s head, offers up an incantation: ‘There now Doris, let my hand wipe away the pain for you; there now, just feel it dissolving, wiping it all away; there now, there now, it’ll soon be all gone Doris, I promise.’

Earlier in the staff canteen, I drink coffee to combat fatigue, gaze at forlorn looking Christmas decorations, and listen to a gaggle of trainee nurses gathered ‘round an adjacent table. Overlapping voices; muted shrieks of derision or exclamation as each vie for attention; the staking of claims upon the situation; self-conscious affectations learned rote from trash TV planting the flags of selfhood; oppressive vitality. Up on the ward, both my mother and Doris, their beds adjacent and parallel, their end days adjacent and parallel, sought none of what captivated these nurses. They needed the caring, the medication too of course, yet more so some trace of emotional solace found only in the gentle presence of another: one to be there fully, unreservedly offering attention. I have but seven days to live, perhaps only two; after which I sense at some level that I’ll never know human contact again – for eternity. Be with me now.

Many years have since passed, over which time I’ve sought to build on any small capacity I had to listen, to be there giving attention, offering presence. We can only truly offer presence once we know it with respect to ourselves. Presence is not merely the physical occupation of space; it is to suffuse that space with the wordless knowledge that we are here fully, attentively, whole-heartedly and beyond the overt contrivances of selfhood. It is an intimate knowledge we have of our being prior to the narratives we construct about who and what we are; and it is a gift we may give to ourselves at any moment and in any given circumstance. Having cultivated this generosity towards ourselves, we are then in a position to emanate this presence and so offer it to others too. Those learning to do so possess at all times a boon to offer the world, to loved ones, and to strangers in need. It is a priceless gift, one of great value.

Be with me now. As I said, that is what I shall want, and that is what you too will want, as we lay during our end days, adjacent and parallel in circumstance, adjacent and parallel in need. Prior to this, it may be that others we know will similarly have these needs. They may well not tell us as much, because they had yet to learn the nature of presence as regards themselves; and yet they instinctively know of their need for it; it is an animal instinct, a human animal instinct. Be with me now. That is a simple request; I can fulfil it absenting any verbiage, any pretence of doing the right thing, any collusion with my sense of obligation. If I am unable to offer presence to myself, if I sense the need for it yet cannot understand that need, how am I to offer it to others? Hopefully, there is plenty of time remaining for us both to develop this simple skill, to naturalise it within us, to make of it both a private and public sanctuary.

Whatever our spiritual inclinations, whether they may be present or absent, this is the time of year when our mind’s turn to the offering of gifts. Here, we invariably sense the weight of obligation, of being seen to do the right thing, both sensing others expectations and feeling our own in respect to offerings. I am unsure as to whether the onus of obligation may be entirely set aside, though I do know of one way in which we may ease the burden and know within ourselves that the right thing is being done. It is to offer our presents with presence. There is a rather beautiful Buddhist tradition of offering gifts with both hands; it is as if to say we hold nothing in reserve, giving freely, openly. To look the recipient in the eyes, to consciously envelop them with presence, this makes as if little the physical content of our palms, and instead makes as of everything the content of our hearts. It is a gift shared for eternity.


The absurdity of adulthood

Photography: Stephan Rebernik, Vienna

Photography: Stephan Rebernik, Vienna

Have you noticed the manner in which many adults relate to each other when discussing children? Much of the time, there’s an affectionate knowingness that presupposes some naïve absurdity of either the child, or of children, generally. This attitude of the adult often carries forward in any spoken exchanges with children themselves, particularly so when engaging with others’ offspring. So there’s a certain pretension or dissembling that goes on, and within which the adult assumes superiority over those less mature. I wonder, what is the validity of this?

In maturity, we garner a greater sophistication of thought of course; this is undeniable. Although the child’s acquisition of language is remarkably efficient, due in part to the neural plasticity of their brain, there’s of yet little or no urbanity or finesse apparent in the structure of their words. This lack, we as adults extrapolate from in arriving at our conclusions as to the child’s naiveté and necessarily present, though cute, daftness. The poor little things will learn of course; over time they’ll come to see the world through eyes such as ours. Is this good?

Perhaps, after all, there is something we lose in our maturing of thought and in the percipience of our on-going analysis of the world. The directness of the child’s apprehending of this same world remains unencumbered by the myriad assumptions we assimilate as we go through life making sense of it in ideas wrought from experience and conditioning. We slip imperceptibly into the habitation of these assimilations and also into the extended ideas they sculpt in our minds. This is our so-called maturation, upon which we abandon all naïveté.

Which, if either, is the more absurd condition, that of the child, or of the mature adult? This article’s title reveals my own conclusion, though it’s worth unwrapping how we arrive at any personal position. Then again, you may feel that the question of absurdity is misplaced, particularly if you detect none within your own character or behaviours. You’re a serious individual perhaps, never prone to the farcical or preposterous; you’ve long since outgrown those tendencies and pursue your life with an unremitting clarity of purpose for the greater part – is that really so?

As an adult, I lose my immediate connection with life as my attention is seduced by thoughts. This seduction may not hold any overt allure, and I might just as easily float adrift upon a meaningless sea of flotsam and jetsam as perhaps upon rarefied clouds of reason. It would utterly horrify me if others could see the abject mess that my adult mind is in for most of the day. The dramaturgy of my social construct would be seen for the façade that it is. I am acting in a farcical play in which I detach not only from others, but from my own vital presence of being.

If others are sensitive, they can sense the dissembling at some level, recognising it as a reflection of their own habitation of mature self-entity, their own clumsy collisions of a patched together narrative. So there we are, the two of us each knowing the other has lost authenticity in the interchange. Despite this subtle knowing, we intuit we have no option but to continue the whole charade. We recognise that in once long ago having stigmatised the possibility of appearing naïve or absurd, we in the process became objects of that same feared absurdity.

Some of our dramaturgy is altogether necessary, as true spontaneity, absurdity and unmitigated directness can be rather frightening or offensive to others. Unconventional displays feel risky to us anyhow; we feel safer in our make believe and have long since lost the wide-eyed receptivity of childhood past. Playing the cautious hand, entrapped like Yossarian in Catch-22, we otherwise would escape the drama so as to relate more authentically, yet doing so risks alienating those we would relate to. So our maturity confines us as we pine for the child’s freedom.

This is not to say that we must remain caught in such a predicament. In knowing ourselves deeply, we no longer need default to the obfuscation of absurdity, yet may still retain certain conventions of social interaction. The truly mature adult embodies the child within amidst a playfully offhand knowingness that remains respectful in all encounters with others. Our physiognomy and dialogue may at times adapt so as to bridge two worlds of knowing, at once refining the art of absurdity to such a point that its formerly elusive obviousness negates openly.