FROM HEART TO HEART:
REFLECTIONS DURING MEMORIAL DAY
Such violence in the April blog. All true. All sadly true. But it is only part of the truth about my life in particular and human life in general. I'll begin, however, not with human life but rather the life of animals.
Here is a true story. Outside my office is a balcony accessible by steps frequented not only by humans who come to my office, but also by various friendly animals who drop by for a visit or to see if there might be any food or water in the small dishes outside my door. Don't worry. The food supply is not to encourage feral activity but to assist in occasional emergency support until the critters can move along and find, or be assisted in finding, permanent homes ideally.
One of the visitors I observed was a black cat I named "Ninja" because he would slip by only rarely and very unobtrusively, staying out of sight as best he could. Only, Ninja was not a "he" but a "she," apparently, because after a long absence she appeared one morning with a little kitten, a tortoise-shelled coloring that was arrestingly striking had it not been for the malnourished state of its little body as well as that of Ninja.
I filled the two little bowls with food and water, went back inside my waiting room, and observed the mother and her kitten from a window. The first thing that struck me was how the mother did not run off and out of sight but remained close by as I put food and water in the dishes. Then a fascinating little drama took place. "Ninja" walked over to the dishes and showed the kitten what to do, nibbling briefly at the food and sipping quickly the water before backing away while her kitten ate.
The mother cat lay down three feet or so from the dishes and quietly observed the feeding kitten. Not once did Ninja show any impatience. Only after the kitten had obviously finished its meal and come over to begin play with her mother did Ninja get up and feed herself. Finally, both apparently satisfied, the mother guided her playful kitten across the balcony and back down the stairs.
What struck me so strongly in that brief episode was the nurturing, unselfish behavior of this feral and very hungry mother cat. It reminded me of a study conducted in 1964 and reported in the American Journal of Psychiatry. As the research team reported their findings, a group of rhesus monkeys were observed coping with a dilemma set up for a controlled experiment to observe whether or not the monkeys would show a capacity for empathy toward one another.
In the experiment, certain monkeys could feed themselves by pulling on a chain that would deliver food within their reach. However, as the feeding monkeys soon observed, each time they pulled the chain, it delivered a shock to a companion rhesus monkey in another location. Under those conditions, the feeding monkeys elected not to pull the chain and harm others, starving themselves, in one case, up to twelve days.
Experiments such as this one and the careful study of various primates in their native habitats have demonstrated a surprising capacity for, and practice of, empathy within the animal kingdom. Through the disciplines of biology, neurology, psychiatry, psychology, ethology, anthropology, and others, we add clearly to our insights about the place of compassion not only among humans but within and among all primates as well.
The result? Let me state it most succinctly: We are "hard-wired" for compassion. It is only a partial understanding of all primates, including humans, that focuses on aggression, violence, and selfishness. True, those qualities mark our history to a disturbing degree, but our human evolution and survival have depended upon acts of love and compassion as well. Strangely, only now are we beginning to re-evaluate those qualities on the positive side of the ledger that enable us not only to prevail but to find meaning, inspiration, and joy in life -- even in our darkest moments.
For instance, consider the life and late work of the German pianist and composer, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). Already by age thirty, he had arrived at a pinnacle of achievement for a musician, recognized as one of the outstanding pianists and composers in his day with the promise of historical prominence. But he was a miserable man who reported to his brother that he had considered ending his life.
He was going deaf. It was a medical condition that threatened, and eventually resulted in, the permanent total loss of his hearing. But truth be known, he was by all reports a pretty miserable man before his approaching deafness. He was eccentric, explosive, contentious, and self-preoccupied. Pity the poor waiter in the Vienna restaurant who might bring Beethoven a dish not acceptable for whatever reason and have it thrown back in the waiter's face!
But, to grant some allowances to the famous composer, we also must remember the overwhelming external stress of those years of his life. They were filled not only with the personal vexations of living alone and trying to make a living as a musician but also having to contend with family tragedies and a war brought home to Vienna by the the invading armies of Napoleon whose canons tested the last resolve of Beethoven's hearing and whose occupying armies brought the horror of war to the streets and cafes of the musician's every-day life.
My point of focusing on Beethoven in the context of considering the role of love and empathy in human existence is for the following reason. It seems to me that he found something in the human soul during those last years of deafness and warring violence that demonstrates the case I am trying to make.
During that last decade of Beethoven's life, he composed some of his most complex and inspiring works. These include not only string quartets and piano sonatas, but also the profound Missa Solemnis, which is often overlooked and under-performed, and the Ninth Symphony, which cannot be overlooked and has not been under-performed!
In these works, Beethoven finds an "ode to joy" (Ninth Symphony) but also an "inner and outer peace" -- words and music he "hears" that offer an understanding of human potential in the face of life's uncertainties and tragedies. To return to my opening paragraphs in which I suggest that in primates there is a "hard-wiring" for empathy, I am suggesting further that we can trace that fundamental and universal trait as it appears in human suffering. Love and empathy form our basic nature and connect all human beings in a shared melody that arises from our hearts with joy, hope, and yearning for peace.
At the top of Beethoven's score for the Missa Solemnis, he wrote, "From the Heart -- May it Return to the Heart." The piece concludes, Dona nobis pacem -- grant us peace.