Solipsism and empathy

2013-08-20

A while back, I was in Turkey for a quick study abroad class. One of the members of the class ended up having a panic attack on one of our nights out in Istanbul. Myself and another member of class got her out the crowded melee of Taksim and back to (I think) the relative sanctuary of our hotel.

We got her back safe, but I can truthfully confess that I didn't really get it. I didn't really understand what was happening to her. I'm not sure if I was functioning out of social mores, some product of my upbringing, or what, but it still seemed foreign to me. I literally could not conceive of what was happening to her.

And then it happened to me. On the last day of our trip, as we were getting ready to head to Atatürk Airport, it struck me, like it struck her. Terror. Nauseua. Vomiting. Disassociation. Weakness. Racing heart. It was uncomfortable on the level I imagine cave-dwellers must have felt when it stormed. A total "why is is this happening I don't understand" moment (over a series of hours, really). I could barely carry my bags. I couldn't look people in the eye. I was trembling and terrified for hours. The timing was impeccable.

Thankfully, with the help of my classmates and unbelievably gracious professors, I managed to board the plane, and make the transatlantic flight back to the US.

When I got back, I slept. And when I was done sleeping, I awoke feeling like I had been beaten with a shovel. I have been athletic and healthful my entire life; this had never happened before. This was in January, so I went through with the final semester of college having persistent anxiety and panic attacks. I still haven't read the senior thesis I wrote during that time; I fear it is complete babble.

After a graduating and visiting a collection of doctors, I was able to determine that I, like the rest of my maternal lineage, was a sufferer of anxiety and depression. I still am. Some nights out with friends are fun, some are abject fun-house horror, with the added bonus of feeling like you're going to shit yourself at any moment. I'm not sure it's something you ever cure, but you learn to deal with it and rebel against it.

Some time after my coming to terms with that diagnosis, I had a moment of clarity regarding my fellow student back in Istanbul. I got it. I felt what she felt. And I realized then that my experience helping her was probably the biggest failure of my life, to date.

In my situational solipsism, I was not able to comprehend. Thankfully my conscience and my culture made the fact that she was suffering enough to get her to a better place, but conditioned behavior is not morality. And it is certainly no excuse for empathy. I began to wonder: "If I was only behaving robotically...under what circumstances would I not have made the choice to aid? And how many times had I already failed in this regard without realizing it?" I cannot be the only person who has ever thought as much.

The consequences of such failures are endless. Boundless, really. They are nothing short of the total failure of human civilization. But how does this apply in practice? Think about the recent disclosures on state (and corporate) surveillance. We know it's happening. We know it is on a scale that the Stasi could have only dreamed of. And yet, most people don't care to learn about it. And if they do know about it, they see the perceived security as being worth the cost. But why?

Everyone remembers when the story broke: thousands and thousands of tweets by people saying "I don't have anything to hide, I don't care if the NSA spies on me". This attitude is the failure of empathy, typified. It is the example that cries out. I have been there, though. Plenty of human beings have. We know how comforting it is to abdicate emotional responsibility instead of risking our remaining agency on uncertain terms.

This abdication to people supposedly smarter or better equipped or of a particular self-declared identity is not the way forward. It leads only to sectionalism. If you only care about you and yours, how can you expect an unrelated party to share your sentiment? I am not advocating imperialism in this regard, but the surrender of foundational social issues to those who have a first-hand claim to their outcome is a recipe for utter collapse. That's why we need non-tech people in the fight for privacy, that's why tech people need to be in the fight for marriage equality and the like. Even if there isn't a pressing issue you or your group today, there will be tomorrow, which is why the world can't wait for idiots like me to have a first-hand experience with anxiety in order to "get it". By then it is too late.