Friday, March 16, 2012

Thinking about empathy and a minute's silence

Dear Sisters,
Somehow we ended up in a pizzeria last night. It was one of those evenings that you wander through the centre of Antwerp, stopping in a café here, and then a bar there, having a lovely and jolly time. It was nice, the first warm spring day . . . and it isn't even spring yet.

In stark contrast to the general gloomy mood over the news from Switzerland, the Belgian coach drama which killed 28 people, most of them children, that seems to touch everyone in all its tragedy. Today the bells rang at eleven, after one minute's silence held in Parliament, at all train stations where trains paused on their tracks, truckdrivers flashed their lights on the motorway and people got out of their cars to observe the moment of silence. For one day advertising is removed from various commercial television channels and the newspapers open up again for literature and poetry.

It is hard to know what to say, to add in reflection to these events; whenever a disaster strikes and people give comment, I usually think: of course. We all feel that. So I don't have anything more to add except perhaps to report to you, who are abroad, what it is like being here, in Belgium that -as always with such events- remembers it is a country. For a moment it seems as if everyone thinks and feels the same, and the ramshackle country forever in doubt over its identity finds a rare unison in grief.

I do not agree with the rational commentator on the radio, a psychiatrist or psychologist of some sort, who spent half an hour claiming that all this response is merely superficial. I find it comforting to know that people cannot remain unmoved.

I spent monday racing through a book called "The Psychopath Test". It is a good read, I recommend it. It is certainly no literary masterpiece, and the author puts in a little too many repetitions (as if written for this attention-deficited generation), and I think he takes advantage of the novelty of a lot of Louis Theroux-style, disarmingly British charm when paying attention to freaks in an American context, but, like such gripping phenomena as "The Killing" (which can take you out of your usual routine in life for weeks), it can hook you with every chapter and leave you eager and curious to read on...

That is what I did earlier this week. I think the book is important because it says something about the way things go in society, labelling wise, as well as elucidating the fact that one percent of the population does not feel human empathy, one of the twenty or so identifying personality traits on the list of criteria that constitutes the Psychopath Test.
Here is a little film about it, promoting the book. It gives you an idea of what the book is about but I think what the author achieves is far more interesting than this little marketing film suggests. Beyond the scariness of psychopathic behaviour itself, it shows something about the sheer power psychologists and the pharmaceutical industry wield in our society, far more than we can imagine; some of the sheer randomness that apparently went into devising diagnoses of mental disorders of any kind in the first place, that then fans out all over the world to influence psychological practice the world over; how the media deal with madness, and so on.

It is hard to put your finger on what exactly the book achieves. It does something very well, in all its chaos, and with it the author does a deft mea culpa as well. I suggest you read it, maybe you will succeed.

So I am relieved to know that so many people are capable of feeling empathy as this week's events have shown.

Back to our evening: we ended up in a pizzeria that my friend would never go into because it is a tourist joint - still I dragged him in because I wanted pizza instead of friet, as you do late at night when wandering in town. I have recently picked up learning Italian again and I wanted to practice with the waiters. I said: "Your shirt is very elegant" just as my audiobook had taught me. Upon which the three waiters standing by our table burst out laughing. "Yes", they said. "It is just like the table cloth". (in fact the squares on the shirts are indeed vichy style but with smaller squares). My friend explained that I had possibly offended the gentlemen in question. And suddenly I could see that my comment may have made them feel slightly ridiculous. Was I showing a lack of empathy? Should I check myself against the other criteria on the list?

Love from S2