Attention Lurking in the News, #5: Why the Rich “Just Care Less”

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Psychologist Daniel Goleman’s 10/6/2013 opinion piece in the New York Times brings empathy—a.k.a. caring attention to others—on the front burner of people’s befuddlement about the rich.  Goleman’s essay, “Rich People Just Care Less,” zeroes in on what he calls “the micropolitics of interpersonal attention,” in order to understand why rich and powerful people don’t care much about the less fortunate.  Their attention deficit, he warns, threatens the nation’s public policy and support for social programs.

It’s bigger than that, I fear.  The future our democracy is as stake, as wealth and power play ever larger roles in winning elections.  But what kind of power are we really talking about?  Something deeper is going on.

Psychologists have been studying social power and the limited empathy of those with greater means.  This research seems to underline the obvious—that we tend to focus on the people we value the most.  Folks with fewer resources have more empathy because they value their neighbors and community more.  People of limited means need other people more because, unlike the rich, they cannot always hire others to tend their children, drive them about, look after their aging relatives, and so on.  Rich and powerful people are also prone to assume they are more deserving than the powerless, as if wealth bestows virtue and poverty merits disrespect.

The bias of the rich has led to the defunding of food stamps and the refusal by many states to implement Obamacare.  [Ran out of food?  You must have wasted your stamps on junk food.  Have a pre-existing condition?  Tough luck: insurance companies have to make a profit.  Can’t afford their rates?  Suck it up, or get a better job.]  Goleman says he’s more worried about the empathy gap between rich and poor than the income gap, which happens to be greater now than in the past century.

There’s a glimmer of hope, though, in research showing that individuals with friends in disrespected or hostile ethnic groups feel little or no prejudice even when living in heavily prejudiced communities.  But for this to occur there has to be “intergroup contact.”  How, we might ask, can the 99% intermingle with the 1% with ever more isolated gated communities and exclusivity?

Here’s a personal example of the complexity, and perhaps the simplicity, of how much this lack of empathy boils down to where we put our attention.

As a young woman working in a non-profit organization, I had a similarly employed friend who got the chance to administer an arts-related nonprofit in another city.  There she met a rich, elderly patron of the arts who had terminal cancer and no children.  My friend was poised, pretty, and intelligent.  She was not attracted to this man, but was oddly intrigued that he would pressure her to marry him so she would inherit his wealth.  He could have willed it to her without marriage, but he was probably trying to avoid the risk that she would be sued by his relatives.  Plus he wanted her to bear his name and carry out some of his philanthropic goals.  The last I spoke with her she had no illusions of love for this man, and feared that her life would never be the same if she accepted his offer.  Still, she looked me in the eye, nodded, and said the man claimed to be offering her more power and influence than she would ever have on her present career path.

A few months passed.  As Christmas approached, I received a gold embossed envelope containing a card with an elegant etching of a stately mansion.  Inside was a cool “Seasons Greetings,” signed with my friend’s first name.  No personal message.  The embossed address did not include her married name.  So I sent her a Metropolitan Museum of Art Christmas card using that address and her former name—proceeded by “Ms.”  I handwrote my warm wishes and the hope that she’d keep in touch. I never heard from her again.

Part of me understood that she now lived far away, and how could she continue to confide in me when her new life was so different and far more glamorous than mine?  The exchange of attention between us would no longer be equal.   But another part of me felt bereft, that she had done something inhumane.

Recently I remembered the end of this friendship as I was discussing Goleman’s essay with a colleague in the clergy. For some reason it made him think of a domestic worker who’d sought his advice on a terrible dilemma.  She was a maid whose long-time employer had died, leaving her $33 million in gratitude for her years of faithful service.  Instantly the woman’s life became a nightmare of lawyers—hired by relatives of the deceased who’d never bothered to visit while she was alive—accusing her of coercion and extortion.  Defending her innocence would require years of costly legal battles that could consume most of her inheritance.  My colleague’s Solomonic advice: keep one million and sign away all the rest. He told her she’d have a comfortable life and avoid some ugly battles that could ruin it.

Regarding my former friend, the clergyman asked me to imagine what her life was like marrying a rich man soon to die—moving into a palatial home, surrounded by servants she did not know how to supervise, with no friends to advise her and no background in that lifestyle.  After his death envious people would whisper behind her back, if not openly treating her like a gold-digger.  “I think she was lonely and wanted to reach out to you, but was also ashamed,” he said.  The odds were excellent, he added, that the dead man’s relatives would sue, or at the very least accuse her of taking advantage of him.

“So where did she put her attention?” I asked. “Was she in denial that she’d entered that kind of life for the sake of power and influence? Did she allow herself to consider my feelings?”

“Oh,” he replied, “the rich try very hard to present a clear, smiling face to the world.  But I know that in private, many of them are crying,” he said. “That’s probably why you never heard from her.”

More about caring less in my next post.

Attention Lurking in the News #3: On Courtship and Friendship

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“The End of Courtship,” an almost tragic piece in the New York Times (Sunday, 1/13/2013, by Alex Williams) sat on my desk for days, taunting me to take it on, even as it reduced me to mute pessimism.  Who could not sympathize with young people immersed in the alternate reality of smartphones, texting and sexting more comfortably than ‘face time’ – an ugly term for something essentially miraculous.  No one seems to have coined “ear time” yet, but telephone conversation is sliding gradually down into the same ‘social delete’ file.

The growing absence of real-time attention seems to underlie the crisis among 20-somethings who, after the hook-up culture of college, haven’t a clue how to enter a more grownup m.o. where actual courtship can occur.

On behalf of the 20-somethings mentioned by Williams, I felt bereft.  A callow college grad whose idea of a date was to text a girl at 10 p.m., with the grand idea that she join him and a bunch of his friends at a bar! (Probably a sports bar, splattered with wide screens blaring football.)  Ah, the hook-up scene, devoid of romance, an insult to public intelligence.

On the other hand, I’ve taught college kids in their 20s and a bit older, and most manage to muddle through.  They learn the intricacies of coded text and communicate at breathtaking speed, compared to how folks of my generation used to slog along with dial phones, awkward smiles across the cafeteria, and excruciating blind (or blinded by lust and fear of missing out) ‘real dates’ for movies and cheap meals.

Many of my peers never dated in high school.  Nevertheless, or perhaps for that reason, when they got to college my generation clumsily ushered in what used to be called the New Morality.  (Millennials would recognize it as a prehistoric version of hook-up culture.)  That was when ‘good girls’ stopped saving themselves for marriage, and not a few found themselves frantically searching for abortionists.

Nowadays college grads don’t seem to know how to tell dates apart from non-dates or networking dates, let alone courtship.  A few decades ago things may not have been as impersonal as hooking up, but today’s 20-somethings have my sympathy.  Maybe so many prefer to socialize in groups because it takes pressure off those struggling to earn a decent income in a long recession, who can’t afford dinner and a show.

No doubt there’s some kind of safety in numbers.  When that clueless guy surrounded himself with friends before inviting his first-time ‘date’ to a bar, his pals were his posse and his vetting panel.  He probably hoped they’d help draw this new girl out, and he’d see if she liked the same people he liked.  Rational so far. But waiting till 10:00 the night of the date to text her? That’s what made him a twerp.  No respect.  Would he do that to a friend, or someone he wanted to become a friend?

Here’s where friendship and courtship cross paths.  Both require respect, and both run on the quality of attention.  It’s what makes dates and courtship real rather than virtual.

Let’s take a broader turn here, into friendship.  We need a wider spread of sympathy, beyond the 20-somethings to everyone whose friendships and love lives have suffered from the impersonality and brevity of smart-phone communication.  The public budget of face and phone time have been subjected to painful cuts across the board, and many of us are bereft.

My own courtship and marriage happened before e-mail, and though my husband and I have smart phones, we almost never text each other.  Thank heavens.  But our friendships have often been short-circuited by digital devices.  And—not to say anything new—as one grows older, friendships take on amazing importance.  Perhaps right up there with marriage and romance.  Let me illustrate with one sad example.

My husband and I used to take ballroom dance lessons from a gifted teacher, a former world champion in that style.  We grew to love her and became friends as well as students.  Then she moved to the Southwest, and—never often enough for us—traveled back East occasionally for a few days coaching the dancers left behind.  At first she would phone us a few weeks before each trip, telling us of the dates and letting us choose our times with her.  These calls gave us a chance to catch up on each other’s lives beyond the necessarily brief exchange of small talk during lessons.  Each time she called it was a joy to hear her voice again, a pleasure to be thought of.

After a year the phone calls gave way to a more efficient system: group e-mails. ‘Hello – I’ll be in your area 3 days next month….  Let me know the lesson times you’d like and I’ll get back to you.’  We missed her perky voice, but at least we could send her a chatty e-mail reply and get a warm response.

Then her e-mails morphed into text messages.  We did not check our cellphones as regularly as our computers for e-mails, and sometimes discovered a notice from her when few or no lesson times were still available.  Texting left no room to chat. We still had her e-mail address, but using it seemed so yesteryear.  We began to wonder whether a friendly e-mail might be an imposition.  No one called anymore except fundraisers, robo-venders and the odd dinosaur friend.

Our lovely dance coach got married, had a baby, and hasn’t done much traveling since.  Phone conversations with her belong to the distant past.  I imagine it’s like that for many people who no longer call when a text will do.  Surely they miss the sound of others’ voices, the chats, and feel deprived of priceless, genuine human contact.  Not that they’d say anything about it.  They might be branded untechno-savvy.

It’s not just the voice that matters, of course.  ‘Face time’ (ugh!) is even more precious, for the giving and receiving of a steady gaze–that is, if those doing it aren’t trying to sneak in a few texts at the same time–plus those almost forgotten subtleties of facial expression, body language, and shared silence.  Delivering attention in person is the gold standard.   As mentioned before [See Introduction & Welcome], full attention is empowering.  But when ‘face time’ isn’t possible, the phone call comes in a close second.

On the street I overheard a young woman excusing herself on her smartphone: “I called you because I’m too lazy to text.”  ‘Gee thanks,’ I thought snidely.  Then I thought of our dear former dance teacher, and how thrilling it would be to get a similar call from her.  ‘Oh, I’m so glad you chose to be lazy,’ I would say. ‘It’s wonderful to hear your voice.’  Then we’d chat, and reconnect, and I’d close by telling her to be lazy and call me anytime.  It should happen to all of us.  We all need that kind of attention.  It makes friendship and courtship real.

Introduction and Welcome

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You don’t need to be a professor in an ivory tower to do metaphysics. Not everyone, no matter how intelligent, ends up in academia, and not everyone there does metaphysics.  People do metaphysics when they ponder the whys and wherefores of life—from whatever standpoint they find themselves in.  I’ve met some serious metaphysicians who are taxi drivers, homemakers and electricians.  What makes them serious is how carefully they pay attention to what’s going on around and in them.  Here’s how I got started:

My mother was a nurse who loved to read, everything from fine poetry to the National Enquirer, from beauty tips and celebrity gossip to international news and political commentary.  She loved human interest stories the most, and shared the best bits with her family.  The one I found most intriguing has stuck with me all my life.  It was about  “boarder babies.”

There was a hospital with a maternity ward, according to this piece, where women sometimes gave birth and left their babies there unclaimed.  Note, these newborns were perfectly healthy with no birth defects.  They were cared for by nurses and aides who kept them clean, warm, and well nourished.  But the hospital staff had many other duties, and that was all they were able to do.  …What happened to those perfectly healthy little babes?

My students have been shocked, at least momentarily, to hear this.  But  occasionally a natural metaphysician among them pops up with the correct answer.

They died, that’s what.  Not of disease, or malnutrition.  They died for lack of attention.

Others ask snarkily, as some students tend to do, “You mean to tell us that babies who don’t get cuddled and cooed at give up and die, just like that?”

Think about it, I say.  You’re new to life, in a crib in a maternity ward.  Other babies’ mothers pick them up and hold them, family and friends ooh and ah and say how cute they are, and you are ignored except for the quick diaper changes, wipes, and bottles of formula.  You sense that other beings like you are getting what you want more than anything, and you are missing out.  If that’s all you knew of life, would you want to live?  Incidentally, the hospital in question formed a group of volunteers to hold and talk to the boarder babies, until they could be placed in proper homes.  After that they all survived.

Back to my real point:  Attention is vital for life.  Without it we die; with it we thrive. You would not be alive to read this if you had been denied sufficient attention as an infant.  

As this website will explore, attention may be the invisible (a.k.a. dark) force of our world.  And, as I have suggested elsewhere (See Publications Page), the lack of positive attention may be the initial source of what we feel to be evil.  On the other hand, caring attention may prove to be the essential ingredient of all personal power and achievement.

If you think this subject is vast and worth exploring, welcome to the world of attending metaphysicians!

  

FYI – A recent Op Ed column in the New York Times by Nicholas D. Kristof  seems to illustrate my point rather convincingly.  It’s titled “Cuddle Your Kid!” and subtitled “What Romney and Obama can learn from rats and a teenage girl.”  Here’s the link:http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/21/opinion/sunday/kristof-cuddle-your-kid.html?_r=0