Sympathy is for the Squirrels

Response piece to the following segment from George Saunder’s Tenth of December and a subsequent reading of In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried by Amy Hempel

Looking down at the brain slice Eber had felt a sense of superiority. Poor guy. It was pretty unlucky, what had happened to him.

He and Molly had fled to the atrium, had hot scones, watched a squirrel mess with a plastic cup.

Part of the normal human condition is the impossibility of feeling certain emotions from a distance. When face-to-face with someone else who is experiencing just cause for grief, agony, or desperation, our internal process of observation, expression of sympathy, and resumption of normal activities occurs in the blink of an eye. Even as we listen to the afflicted and nod politely with our brows furrowed, our minds are considering what to make for dinner that night and whether we should get those concert tickets we’ve been thinking about. And as soon as we feel that a socially-acceptable amount of time has passed to permit stepping away from the hospital bed without looking crass, we do go preoccupy ourselves with eating scones and watching squirrels. There’s a certain comfort and familiarity in watching the squirrel, whose meaningless scampering about is pleasantly reminiscent of our time frittered away in shopping malls, bars, and online. Except the squirrel is actually productive. All of its actions are aimed at feeding itself, protecting itself, preparing for the long winter. The squirrel is the invalid, the dying, the handicapped. It has concerns we can’t even imagine. Even in those few seconds that it pauses to chitter and throw twigs at a dog that has just chased it up a tree, even then, it is learning. The squirrel has purpose.

And we only begin to feel when we have purpose. Sure, we save for our retirement, drive our children to piano lessons and math tutors, and work diligently to pay down the mortgage and the new car. But those are tasks on autopilot. None of them constitute a purpose. The squirrel knows that the only true purpose is survival. Only when survival, our existence as we know it, is on the line do certain emotions become real and sympathy possible. You don’t join the breast cancer walk unless your mother had a mastectomy. You don’t pin the red ribbon to your shirt unless your uncle died of AIDS. You might dump a bucket of ice water over your head, but that’s for you, for the accolades on social media. You might donate a dollar at the cash register to the charity of the month, but that’s for you too, to prevent embarrassment brought on by the silent judgment of the cashier who just ran your credit card for five hundred dollars worth of sunglasses and scarves. Emotions driven by the desire to be are the only ones with the power to capture our full attention. Jealousy, fear, brokenheartedness. But also ambition, satisfaction, and ecstasy. These are arresting. These render the scones tasteless and blind us to the presence of the squirrel. Unlike the abstract sympathy, which merely defines the space around us, these emotions consume us because they are us.

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