On Feeling Others’ Pain

Years ago a friend confided at the dinner table that he felt no connection to the events he read about in the paper. He noticed that other people felt appalled or sad or moved by the terrible events they read about, but to him they were just words on paper. He recognized it was strange to have no empathetic response, but he just couldn’t muster one.

I’m the other extreme. I get teary when I hear about the most minimal acts of kindness as well as the most distant suffering. I cried when I saw Solidarity take to the streets in the 80s, and I could barely sleep thinking about people jumping to their deaths on 9/11 or about the suffering and grievous loss following the tsunami and Katrina. I think most people are more like me than my friend at that dinner table.

I don’t take much stock in something like Hume’s notion of an inner moral sense. But there does seem to be a palpable difference in how people respond to the suffering and the joy of others. There’s evidence that this difference is hardwired, but I’d like to think there is more to it than that.

Good-bye, dear friend

My friend Cole Campbell died. From AP reports I gather he was speeding down icy roads on his way to his Reno, Nevada campus. His Honda SUV slid on to an embankment, then flipped over. The paramedics had to pull him out of the car, unconscious I gather, I hope, then take him to the hospital, and there he died. Reportedly two witnesses said he was driving too fast for icy conditions. I’ve done that.

I’m so mad at you, Cole Campbell, so mad at you for being in a hurry. What was the hurry? Late at home tending to breakfast dishes? Late getting to work for a meeting? What meeting could cost that much?

I have been there, done that, though not been caught under a ton of metal. The last time we talked, we were both in a hurry. Or really it was me in a hurry. I don’t remember what for. You had just brilliantly moderated a panel at the National Archives. We went out for coffee afterwards. Ollsen’s. Downtown Washington. You got a call. I thumbed through magazines looking for the architectural magazine I hoped was about to feature my house. After the call, we commiserated about professional commiserations. We talked about possibilities. I said, I’m sorry but I’ve got to run. I drove you to your hotel. We said good-bye, see you soon.

But I’ll never see you again.

I think about your wife, your “bride” as you called her. You and she, newly married, newly parents of a boy called Clarke. Your bride is now in Reno, wondering what for. I don’t know her, but I think about her. I imagine that she is as mad at you as I am.

This thing called weather, blanketing those western states, while we on the east coast live through unseasonable warmness. This thing called weather, it takes lives. I know this abstractly.

But none of this is abstract. At six a.m. today I sat down with a cup of coffee and the New York Times, I read on the first page about I don’t remember what. Iraqi surges, the body mass index of six-year-olds, the archbishop of somewhere or other, and then it was time to flip through the front section until I got to the op-ed page. But there, on the way, on the obituary page, which I scanned obligatorily, was a face that did not belong there. Your face. What was it doing there?

“Cole Campbell, one of the first newspaper editors to embrace the idea that journalism should help readers be engaged citizens, died Friday in Reno, Nev., when his vehicle flipped on an icy road.”

Cole Campbell did indeed embrace an idea. He embraced many ideas. He was a philosopher who happened to be a journalist. One of the first times I met him, when I was not too long out of graduate school, was at a meeting somewhere unremarkable, where the place that caught his fancy was the nearby bookstore. On the bus back to the hotel he pulled books out of the plastic bag to show me his finds. All manner of intellectual fodder about postmodernism, public philosophy, John Dewey, literary criticism. Frankly I don’t remember. I just recall that it was the sort of reading that my fellow graduate students and I would read, not what the former editor of the St. Louis Dispatch would read.

Because of the kind of ideas he embraced, and the kind of wild, that is, experimental, practice he engaged, the St. Louis Dispatch dispatched with Cole Campbell. And so he found himself a philosopher without a newspaper; so he did the respectable thing that philosophers do, he tried to get a Ph.D. He got himself to the Union Institute with Elizabeth Minnich as his dissertation director. But somewhere on the path Minnich parted from the Union and left Cole without an anchor. The president of Union wouldn’t return his calls, Cole told me. So Cole was permanently A.B.D. Even so, he had gotten himself into academe, skipping to the head of the class, the Dean of the J school at the University of Nevada Reno. He set out to reform journalism by way of education, exemplifying the ideal that journalism could be more than reportage, showing how it might be engagement with a public, helping a public identify problems, possibilities, and avenues for public life.

The Associated Press reports people saying he was a “futurist,” but that’s just bunk. There was nothing science fictiony about Cole Campbell’s aspirations. I loved him so much because we shared a very old-fashioned hope about democratic life, a memory of what a country can be before it even has any apparatus of government, a people with a self-governing practice of problem solving. Neither Cole nor I have ever been Reaganesque government bashers, but we both shared the hope that the institutions of public life could be arms of a public, not institutions that hold a public in perpetual tutelage.

For you, Cole Campbell, I will never drive fast again down treacherous roads. I will savor my coffee and my friendships. For you, Cole Campbell, I will shower strangers with unexpected good will, the kind of good will that I found whenever in your company.