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emphaty

OK, so our Year of the Rat celebrations have engendered some reader pushback against the maligned rodents, and I can certainly understand that, considering some of the unhappy rat/human collaborative efforts from history (like, uhhhh, the bubonic plague or sundry deep famines).  And, likewise, I completely understand how unnerving it can be when a scabrous piece of the subway wall detaches itself from the general gloom and runs over your foot like a gray hell imp (this is particularly demoralizing after being pushed around by New York crowds all week while desperately trying to hold on to a semblance of sanity commuting to and from your meaningless dayjob).

Yet, despite (ten thousand years of) these bad rat moments, rats are worthy of our respect; not because of their enormous worldwide success, nor their astonishing resilience, nor their acute intelligence (although all of those things are indeed true and respectable), but because of something unexpected–their morality and compassion.

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A landmark University of Chicago laboratory experiment from 2011 presented lab rats with a dilemma. A subject rat was given a choice of  helping an unknown fellow rat trapped in a narrow, scary, and uncomfortable plastic tube (which could only be opened by the subject rat nudging a finicky and unpleasant latch), or eating chocolate.  It is worth noting that rats like chocolate as much as we do.  The NIH summarized the experiment results thusly:

To test how much value the rats placed on liberating a trapped cagemate, the scientists presented rats with 2 restrainers — one with a rat inside and another containing 5 chocolate chips, a favorite rat snack. A free rat could choose to eat all the treats himself by opening the chocolate restrainer first or blocking the entrance to the chocolate restrainer. But the researchers found that the free rats opened the restrainers in no consistent order and allowed their liberated cagemates an average of 1.5 chips. When an empty restrainer was paired with a chocolate-containing one, the free rats ate all 5 chocolates.

To summarize: the rats helped the other rats and then shared the chocolate! Here are some full descriptions of the study.  You should read them and run it through in your head.  Maybe imagine if you were caught in something like this with terrifying alien scientists, a rando human stranger, and a satchel with millions of dollars in it. Would you behave as well as the rats?  Would you try to help or would you try to escape the lunatic aliens with the money as fast as possible? Would you free the other human and then take 3.5 million dollars and give them 1.5 million? Really? Reallllly?

No study about the emotions or virtues of animals would be complete without a loud and peevish set of detractors coming forth to claim that the conclusions are misconstrued (or some form of anthropomorphism).  The “only humans have actual feelings and thoughts” crowd assessed the 2011 study and found it lacking because perhaps the subject rat wanted the companionship of the stranger rat trapped in the tube or something.  It seems to me the original study took such concerns into account by creating scenarios in the which the second rat, once freed, was still separated from the subject rat (this did not alter the experiment’s outcome). However, to placate the naysayers, the neural scientists sighed heavily and created an even more harrowing ordeal in which rats had to risk drowning (or so it seemed to them) in order to help a stranger rat who seemed to be drowning. Once again the rats performed with admirable integrity and heroism.  An additional wrinkle was that the rats who had been trapped in the water as the “victim rat” acted more quickly to save their distressed fellows when they were given the role of subject rat.

sn-ratpaws

To my ears, that sounds like a textbook definition of empathy.  All of this does! Rats have hearts. They are capable of compassion and nobility.  Guanyin also holds rats in her ineffable embrace. As she listens to the cries of the world she hears their horrified squeaks to their families as we trap and poison them.

I confess that such a thought is deeply disquieting to me. I have been guilty of treating rats like vermin.  Yet I have talked to people with pet rats and I am not really surprised.  It has long been obvious to people of good conscience and reasonable observational abilities that almost all mammals (and a distressing number of birds and fish) have rich and soulful emotional lives.  They are not machines made of meat (or, at least, not more so than we humans are too).  They have souls, whatever that means.  Probably a lot of religious people are cursing me to their made-up gods, but I bet most people with pets are biting their lips and thoughtfully nodding.

I don’t know what to do with this knowledge. Our world is a cruel world of savage competition and appetite.  I eat certain mammals and birds.  I live in rat-free dwellings! It’s how I live! It’s what I have always done… yet more and more I worry that I live thoughtlessly in the jeweled master bedroom of a vast palace of cruelty.

But we are not seeking facile and comfortable answers here. We are seeking the truth, and that can be a narrow path of daggers which cut your heart. If you want soothing lies which confirm all of your biased feelings, go become an evangelical [REDACTED]ian.

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“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  So reads the thunderous second sentence of the Declaration of Independence–probably the finest thing Thomas Jefferson ever wrote.  It is a cornerstone not just of the American spirit but of worldwide humanist thought.  It is one of the most influential sentences ever written in English.  National political discourse rightly concentrates on the first and second inalienable rights: life and liberty (for powerful interests conspire against both in every era).  The popular imagination however seizes on the last part of the sentence: “the pursuit of happiness” is fundamental to our lives, yet even the phrasing betrays a certain elusory and unattainable quality to the concept.  “Pursuit” suggests that felicity, contentment, and joy are will-of-the-wisps which can be chased but never caught.  This is a sobering way of looking at happiness, but it is an important concept to explore–for the well-known roads to happiness are indeed dangerously illusory.  Pleasure is a physiological goad pushing us toward survival and reproduction (and, in a world of boundless plenty, the pursuit of pleasure has become dangerously untethered from the dictates it was originally meant to serve).  Accomplishment is a tread-mill which never yields the desired results—a mountain with no top.  Possessions do not satisfy. Relationships are as fragile as soap bubbles.  So what is happiness anyway?  Is there a meaningful way to succinctly address a subject which has tormented the rich, wise, and powerful as much as the poor, the ignorant, and the oppressed.  Can we summarize a quest which has baffled sybarites, monks, philosophers, kings, and saints?

A rudimentary approach to happiness is to equate happiness with physical pleasure. Such a voluptuary outlook is, after all, based on fundamental biological demands.  We crave sweets and rich savory foods for a reason.  When we were hunter-gatherers (which, from an evolutionary perspective, was only a short time ago) we needed such things to survive famines and shortages.  Our eyes lustfully seek out beautiful human forms because of a billion year old imperative from our genes. Gambling too was a path to success.  The chief who took his clan on a dangerous trip across an unknown channel might be killed, but he might also find an untouched land filled with resources.  We all descend from such risk-takers.  Even our troubles with intoxicants and sundry addictive substances have evolutionary underpinnings. We need an internal carrot and stick to help us diagnose what is good for us and what is not.  Certain chemicals happen to touch the reward and pleasure parts of our brain (or block pain comprehension) in ways that short-circuit this diagnostic.

The Hunter Gatherer (Todd Schorr, 1998, acrylic on canvas)

The basic drives that create resilient, successful hunter gatherers can be disastrous in a world filled with superabundant processed food, internet porn, online gambling, and high-tension drugs.  Our genotype is at odds with the world we have created.  Physical pleasure does not lead to happiness. In an agricultural and industrialized world it makes us fat, unhealthy, addicted, and jaded.

So we must walk a more intense road and pursue the disciplined calculating path of ambition.  In the contemporary world this hinges on trade. Imagine a person who is the perfect epitome of free-market capitalism.  Such an individual realizes that literally everything is a trade.  Even romantic relationships are a market of sorts–where one wants to “buy low and sell high” thus maximizing a limited set of appealing characteristics in exchange for the most desirable mate.  In fact economists call people who obsessively seek the best option in every circumstance “maximizers.”   They seek the best toothpaste, cars, investments, careers, and spouses.  A moment of reflection will demonstrate that Madison Avenue, Wall Street, and Hollywood are all industries which are set up to create maximizers.  The idea that we must have the best of all choices is an underpinning of our culture.  What a shame that social scientists have discovered that maximizers are chronically unhappy when compared with people who care less about making the perfect choice in every circumstance.  The perfect car gets a dinged fender (or another richer banker buys a fancier model).  The perfect investment shoots up and falls apart.  The perfect relationship comes apart as both parties change.

Thanks to a multitude of choice we are stuck with a bizarre false consciousness that the perfect choice will make us happy. This thought-provoking essay explores the emotional traps inherent in a society with too much choice (it will appeal to fellow New Yorkers for making the Big Apple seem like the ultimate ambiguous trade).

Pleasure, ambition, and material goods all fail as sources of happiness (indeed they fail in a way which hints darkly as the insufficiency of romantic love). We turn toward more abstract virtues—devotion, altruism, curiosity.  Here, at last we find people who seem happy—who are not caught on a cruel tread-mill where gaining a cherished objective causes them to become disillusioned with that objective.  What is the commonality between the otherworldly promises of religion, the struggles of philanthropy, and the burning quest for knowledge?

The Buddhist Road to Nirvana

The devout are directed to live a certain way by sources which they believe to be of supernatural or spiritual origin.  The Anabaptist, the Sufi, the Buddhist monk, all strive for perfection of a sort which will be rewarded beyond death. Heaven and Nirvana give meaning to their everyday trials and tribulations (even if the next world might just be another illusion).  It vexes me to acknowledge that happiness can be discovered in such a system, and yet I have met faithful people who have convinced me that such is the case.  Additionally (unless you worship a capricious deity of death), the religious viewpoint, although apt to concentrate overmuch on imaginary/unknowable goals also inclines toward helping others.

People dedicated to helping others, sometimes feel underappreciated or abused, however, in surveys they report feeling more content with life than the hard-charging (well-recompensed) masters of international finance.  The world always suffers from poverty and disease and misery.  Environmental devastation is widespread. Yet even in the face of such setbacks, the altruists continue forward.  They busy themselves by making something worthwhile or helping others.  Like Vishnu, their purpose is to try to preserve the world from destruction. These are all powerful and noble motivations.  Struggling to better the world is a struggle with no end, but it is a hero’s quest and bears its own rewards.

Finally there are those who find happiness battling ignorance. Curiosity–the virtue of the scientist and the philosopher–causes humankind to continuously play with fire and put our fingers in the light sockets of the universe.  Struggling for provable answers to questions about nature is the foremost quest of life.   The long quest for comprehension of the world sometimes yields stunning insights into the universe but more often it leads to more tortuous questions.  It is unknown whether science has any ultimate answers, but if so they are in the distant future and more questions continue to mount up.

Sir Frederick William Herschel Discovering Infrared Electromagnetic Radiation

Each of these routes to happiness shares a common trait: anticipation.  Zealots imagine the pleasures and consummate perfection of the next world.  The do-gooder toils for the future betterment of humankind and finds pleasure in a child’s smile or a rescued species of butterfly.  The physicist, mathematician, and natural scientist posit hypotheses which may take lifetimes to unravel—and which may indeed be proven spectacularly wrong.  However anticipating a future outcome and working towards it—even if it never comes—maybe especially if it never comes–seems to incline people toward fulfillment.

The question of what happiness is and how to find it thus boils down to anticipation. Find something worth living for and fight for it, even though the way is lost and the light is occluded!  The phrasing of the Declaration of Independence was not a crafty way for Thomas Jefferson to hint that we were never meant to actually capture felicity, it was an instructional hint as to how to find meaning and happiness in life. Keep up the pursuit! The search itself is the answer.  Consummation is just another illusion.

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