In Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel “Catch-22,” the author writes—regarding self-diagnosed insanity—that “There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind.”
In his protagonist Captain Yossarian’s world, empathy was postlogue to insanity: an entirely different conversation. Empathy, at mid-century, was the ability to feel—deeply and physically—the pains and joys of another person. It wasn’t a demand upon others, it was a psychological anomaly that resided within a special individual who knew, among other things, that not everybody had the shine.
In 2022, empathy is manifest differently. In 2022, we are all imbued with some bit of empathy—a physical firing of neural synapses—and expect others to honor us, not for our actual emotions, but rather for our externalized empathy itself. Across time and across our competing conceptions of empathy—we are both empathetic (individually) and non-empathetic (socially) at the same time.
All we have to do is ask; and as soon as we do, we are no longer empathetic.
This is as much a study in linguistics as it is in psychology, history, and politics.
In Captain Yossarian’s mid-century, the meaning of empathy (like “insanity” itself) was in flux. When the word “empathy” first entered the English lexicon (literally meaning “feeling-in”: to enliven an object: to project one’s own imagined feelings onto the world) in the early 20th century, it meant almost the opposite of how it was used in Yossarian’s Cold War world of letters and aerial sorties.
At mid-century the word “empathy” transformed from “projection onto” to “internalization from.” Sometime during the subsequent half-century, “empathy” transformed again into what we have today: inverting the subject/object relationship: demandingly “feel like I feel”: an impossible perversion of the rubber and glue maxim.
Thus, when the semi-devout, semi-originalist Cold War generation—Yossarian’s direct descendants, Heller’s comrades—is told, in 2022, to be empathetic to the problems of a new era, they flop: “How can I feel that? May I retreat to compassion and altruism? I’m sympathetic!” Carnegie’s halls, Coke’s science education and Musk’s StarLink aren’t sufficient.
Thus, when the semi-woke, semi-progressive post-Reaganite generation demands, in 2022, that others be empathetic to their problems, they know immediately to follow up: “No! Not enough! We need you to experience, not merely feel.” Today’s empathy demands Jesus without deity, Teresa without faith and King Jr. without compromise.
We find that there exists a physical and genetic link to both senses of empathy. When an empathetic person sees another person who is experiencing a range of emotions, the empath's neural circuits respond with the same brain activity to physically feel what the other person is feeling. Therefore, the confusing difference between Baby Boomers’ empathy versus 2022’s empathy is not so much in what empathy does, but what empathy triggers: what follows.
Fancying oneself empathetic in the mid-century sense is akin to self-diagnosed insanity in the 2022 sense: reflexively impossible: Catch-2022:
“I feel what you feel,” the mid-century empath might whisper.
“No, I insist that you feel what I feel,” the 2022 empath will demand.
At this linguistic crossroads
—or is it convergence—do we
seek out a new word to replace “empathy” or do we continue to shout at each
other from our entrenched linguistic spaces?
“Love hasn’t changed, though.”
“Of course it has.”
At least the way we talk about love has changed over 2,000 years, over 150 years, and even over 50 years.
“Jesus hasn’t changed.”
“Of course he has.”
At least how we talk and think about him has.
Or are we just insane? We are a cross-generational nation of upside-down flying bombardiers, both wondering why the bombs haven’t hit their targets and also wondering why the bombs haven’t detonated. We are caught in a constantly breathless state of empathetically inspired interruptus.
A bombardier who flies upside-down drops bombs upon themself. We learned this as we fought to replace communism with technocratic oligarchism in the mid-century Cold War. A bombardier who does so under the orders of a technocratic oligarchy in 2022 is championed as a patriotic martyr whose own fragility is defined by what lies un-birthed within his own belly.
A semi-woke nation of self-identified 2022 empaths is sure to crumble beneath its own frustrated intransigence: to scorch the earth with hypocrisy reified by delusional self-importance.
A semi-devout nation of mid-century Christs-on-cross-empaths is sure to crumble beneath its own frustrated post-millennial myopia: to dissolve the social contract through hypocrisy and reified delusional self-importance.
And then that frustration gives way to either defeatism or inflexibility. We can neither exist in a nation without people exhibiting some sort of empathy, nor require—spiritually or legislatively—others to feel what we feel.
While we work out this linguistic impasse—waiting for a radically poetic approach to empathy that cuts into expectations, wealth gaps and nuclear winters—let’s breed our hill on love: let’s make love our bunker.
A semi-woke, semi-devout nation of individuals who love others with no expectations of being loved back have the best potential for real, meaningful, sustainable, and scalable evolution within the boundaries of shared values, shared laws, and shared expectations.
"They don't have to show us Catch-22," the old woman answered. "The law says they don't have to."
"What law says they don't have to?"
I’m lookIng forward to catching the new version of empathy in 2022.5: organic, love-infused empathy without reciprocating demands: rubber:rubber.
I know, I know, I’m probably nuts. Cuckoo…off my rocker.