Wednesday, January 19, 2011

"The Doctrine of Substituted Love"

I believe it was during our engagement that Brandon and I vacationed with his family at Lake Chelan in Washington. One day, we went out in a canoe, and I think we started out rowing together. But pretty soon I insisted that only one of us should row at a time, so that the other could sit back and enjoy the ride. And it gave me such pure joy to be rowing and rowing away--I didn't mind at all that I had to be so focused on rowing, I could not appreciate the peace and beauty of the lake, the gentle movement of the boat across the water--because I knew someone else was doing it--and I was helping to make it possible for him to enjoy.

I've been thinking about egolessness lately. I've mentioned before my previous irritation with the concept (in short, cogito ergo sum cannot logically be denied). Someday soon I will write more extensively on the subject. But for the moment: I think there is a kind of egolessness which makes it possible to share in another's joy as if it were one's own--a kind of self-forgetfulness, a cessation of one's habitual preoccupation with self and personal possessiveness.

I have always been more skeptical about the possibility of sharing another's pain. Particularly, the idea worked out in Descent Into Hell by Charles Williams (from which I got the title for this post). Perhaps it just seems too good to be true that I could really bear some pain on another's behalf, such that their burden would be lessened. But perhaps ... perhaps it is possible.

And I wonder if there is a greater requirement of egolessness not on the part of the person who is taking on the pain, but on the part of the person who gives it up. Perhaps it is even more difficult for the suffering individual to stop saying "my pain, my cross, my suffering," and allow another to bear it for them.

This thought seems unfinished, but I've been kind of stuck here with it for the past few months. I've had time to reflect on the idea during my time as a chaplain intern at Children's Hospital, but my thoughts never seem to have gotten past this point ...


BenjyWay said...

Perhaps the answer to your question can be found in the realm of cognitive science. In my perception class, one thing I learned is that there is an area in the brain which is devoted solely to the task of emulating for your own experience what it imagines others are experiencing. As I recall (with shamefully little certainty), your brain is able to keep impulses from this area separate so that you don't act on them as if you yourself are truly experiencing the circumstances you imagined the other(s) to be in. Furthermore, the feelings thus invoked are less than had you actually experienced the circumstances rather than simply imagining them.

If you're not sure that you can feel others' pain, look up some YouTube videos of people getting bashed up and see whether you cringe. If you do, that's your brain imagining the pain that you saw the person experience.

In some people (the book called them "psychopaths") this area does not function properly.

Virgie P. said...

I'm not sure you quite got the point, Ben. It's not a question of whether you can feel someone else's pain; it's about whether feeling someone else's pain can lessen that person's pain. So there's not a perfect analogy between sharing pain and sharing joy, because with joy you want both people's to be maximized, but with pain you're trying to lessen one person's by shifting it to the other.