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Curtis Smith

We Care!


We care. Good God, how we care. Cruise any mall parking lot and read the bumper stickers and magnetic ribbons on the cars wedged into the white-lined spaces. We support our troops. We pray for the USA. We fight for cures. Brad Pitt donated more to tsunami relief than the average Joe grosses in five years, and wouldn’t we if we had his kind of money? Sure we would. Or at least we’d like to think so.

But there are limits to caring. Brad Pitt’s not going to sell his Malibu estate and shuffle off to a teepee just to send his remaining millions halfway around the world. Of course you support our troops, but there’s no way in hell your son is going to enlist. Knowing a coworker with inoperable cancer is a cap-gun’s pop compared to the atomic bomb of waiting in the doctor’s office to hear the results of your wife’s biopsy.

Empathy, our ability to care at a deep, meaningful level, isn’t an inexhaustible aspect of our personalities. Even the best of us who hold the supermarket doors open for a shuffling old man and then help him wrangle a cart from the piggybacked stack don’t want him to stalk us through the aisles as he relates his rambling tales of children who don’t call, of arthritis and cataracts and embarrassing wetting incidents.

Perhaps our study of empathy and caring needs to evolve from the mushy vagaries of simple emotion into the realm of empirical certainty. There must be a scale we could apply, one marked and measured in appropriate units, a ratio along the lines of Empathy Quota = Emotional Impact (rated on a scale of 1-10, with ten being the highest) / Proximity (again rated 1 – 10, with one being the closest). The median of EQ = EI / P would be named The Threshold of Caring or – if the concept took root in the popular consciousness – The Smith Point. Until this threshold is reached, we are able to deliver blankets to the homeless, write checks for worthy causes, visit distant aunts in their nursing homes, but once this line is crossed, the selfless notions of caring rapidly degenerate into a burden. If the dawdling old man in the supermarket is still bending our ear by the time we reach the produce aisle, we begin to regret our initial overtures of kindness. If a friend calls us weeping hysterically on the night her fiancé breaks their engagement, we would console her with a whole-hearted support, but what happens when we find ourselves entangled in the same conversation a month later? Six months later? A year? Observe both variants of the equation and their impact on the jilted lover and the supermarket geriatric. Each new flight of conversation dulls their emotional impact, and the longer they invade our personal space, the higher they rate on the proximity scale. The ratio dwindles until we no longer care.

Accompanying EQ = EI / P is a sister formula which measures the extent to which altruism rewards us on a purely self-serving (and thus, publicly unacknowledged) level. I have labeled this the Fulfillment Ratio, where Personal Satisfaction = Emotional Yield (1 – 10, with ten being the highest) / Emotional Outlay (1 – 10, with one being the least intrusive impact on one’s life). Consider PS = EY / EO in terms of the ubiquitous magnetic ribbon. Is there a person who has applied one to their trunk or tailgate who didn’t then step back and admire not the ribbon itself so much as the ribbon’s inherent statement that yes, the driver of this vehicle does care. The whole ribbon phenomenon is successful because, through its extraordinarily low EO, it produces an inflated Fulfillment Ratio. Or take last year’s tsunami – once one wrote their check for fifty or a hundred dollars and mailed it off, wasn’t it easier to watch the news reports detailing the devastation, the commercials showing crying orphans stranded amid the wreckage? You had given; you had showed the goodness in your heart. If only everyone in the world would do as much as you. . . . And then there is the hushed flipside of the equation, where the PS of getting our new pair of Nikes is greater than the thoughts of third world sweatshops, where the at-hand luxuries of our SUVs are more compelling than questions of pollution and Middle East politics.

Are we all alike in terms of caring and empathy? Of course not. Look at Mother Theresa. Look at Albert Schweitzer. Brad Pitt has moved on to crusading for the underprivileged masses in Africa, his hunky party-boy image gradually fading, proof once again that one’s Empathy Quota is, thank God, a fluctuating value influenced by changes of perspective and soul. Perhaps future generations will gaze upon water-stained walls and see not images of Mary but Bono (Saint Bono?). Plant these good folks and others like them at one end of the spectrum and anchor the other with sociopaths and economic Darwinists; then calculate your EQ, divide it by your PS, and find your place in the gray scale of empathy, the bell curve of caring.

But there is a juncture where these competing concepts of caring for others and caring for ourselves become all at once unified and disarmingly complex, a situation where the bell curve morphs into a logjam and the gray scale solidifies into a single hue. Imagine your reserves of empathy as an old-fashioned well. Empty the well a bucket at a time. Splash, you no longer care about your job. Splash, you no longer care about your car, your house, your dog, your friends . . . and when you can haul up no more water, look deep into the pit. Captured in the last, clinging puddles swim the reflections of your sons and daughters, your husbands and wives, your sisters and brothers.

Let us assume our capacities for empathy and our desires for personal fulfillment are as unique as our DNA and that the manner in which we conduct ourselves is often the result of balancing these two formulas. And let us further assume that our truest and deepest emotions are reserved for those select few at the bottom of our wells. In this time of terrorism and war, where body counts are part of each evening’s newscasts, let us see each casualty not only as a hero or an ally, a zealot or an enemy, but also as an irretrievable puddle in a well not all that different than our own. Gone are the sons meant to give us comfort in our old age. Gone are the daughters we longed to see with children of their own. Gone are our parents, the only people who knew us as innocents. Gone are the wives and husbands we once kissed in the giddy euphoria of new love.

Let us care, yes, but not in the easy modes that bring us comfort. Let us care by increasing our knowledge of the language of grief. Let us question each bullet and bomb in the most empathetic of ways, in the understanding of the sorrow they will reap, of both the flesh they will violate and in the unhealing wounds they will leave in lives far from the battlefield. Let us care beyond the displaying of superficial tokens. Let us care – quietly, in our hearts, for here is the fertile ground from which all real change originates – for the blood of strangers and for the tears of those who loved them.

Curtis Smith's stories and essays have appeared in over thirty literary journals including American Literary Review, Mid-American Review, Blip Magazine Archive, CutBank, Passages North, West Branch, and many others.  He is the author of two collections of short-short stories and a novel, An Unadorned Life.  His next novel, Between Sound and Noise, will be released in spring 2006.

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