Wednesday, September 10, 2014
Empathy and Solidarity: What I Learned From Doctor Who
Picture with me a battle scene on a planet light generations away. Explosions rock the ground beneath your feet as you stumble around trying to find your comrades while the smoke burns your eyes out. Tears tear from your eyes like melting plastic. Imagine the hatred you would feel if you saw your kin being slaughtered by stray bullets and mortars. Imagine you are immersed in the battle, storming the beaches of the great devil. All of this in the name of obtaining a paradise.
As you are running through the smoke screen fog you hear someone yell out in a foreign accent. "Don't shoot! I have it. I have what you are looking for." It's not much, that sphere-like thing that you and your comrades died and were maimed to procure. It's being held by a strange man in a suit. However, you don't have too much time to think about him because opposite you on the other side of the clearing, running to the same sounds in the same battle but from the other side, is a battalion of your enemies with firearms locked, loaded, itching for revenge, and pointed in your direction.
The scene tenses instantly as it reaches its breaking point.
Then you hear the voice of the man with the orb. Unlike the scowling ash sooted and graven faces of your enemies this man looks clean, smart, and a little nerdy. He doesn't seem quite as tense. As a matter of fact, the sight of his quirky form kind of relieved the tension… slightly. He is holding the orb high and confirming everyone's suspicions. Yes, he indeed does possess that mostly holy grail of objects.
Legends had been told from the east to west about the great orb that could bring you and your people out of the darkness of this perennial war. You and your friends had traveled thousands of miles and left families and homes in search of this sphere so that the world could finally be put to rights and your people could have their revenge over their bitter rivals.
Little did you know, the people in the uniforms opposite you in the battlefield clearing have a similar legend about a great object of war that would bring the war to an end and destroy the heathens across the world. They had come to this very spot in search of that holy relic.
Currently, however this squirrely man was holding it high in the air carelessly as if he were the angel of death come to rob you of your hope. Both armies trained their guns on him in the time it took him to lift it.
"Good, now you're getting it."
Surprisingly, the stranger knew our language. He explained that he was some sort of field medic who had crash landed here in a time machine (!) You had never heard such non-sense, but he seemed to know things. He knew that your great ancestors sought a holy weapon to put an end to this war and bring peace to Battlefield Earth. He also knew that you were continuously thwarted by clans from the other side of the world who had come to destroy your homes. Then he told another story to the unclean soldiers and they seemed too to be similarly surprised at his knowledge of their culture.
He said he knew what we sought-- the end of the war. As if awakening from a daze every soldier on the field remembered where they were and who they were there with and raised their guns at each other in unison. At which point, the squirrely little man, to the sound of a communal gasp of surprise 100 strong, dropped the orb to a cry…
"Look, it will end the war."
As everyone on the field fought back the urge to fire they looked and saw a blue light escape the orb like wisps of smoke to permeate the air like incense on an altar. As the light touched the singed leaves of countless plants they slowly turned green, stood upright, and reached for the sun instinctively like a newborn babe at its mother's breast. Then smoke began to change colors into the most purest of white before collapsing as water to soak the parched ground to give it a nutricious color. The sky began to turn from yellow, red, black, and gray to the cleanest and most pristine of baby blues. The moisture unfurled on the canvas of the sky and collapsed in your tear ducts. Joyous rain fell from your eyes to water the new ground.
"It's an Eden terraform module", the suited man, now looking calm and regal, quietly whispered over the prairie "It wasn't a weapon you both had been looking for your entire lives and your parent's lives and your grandparent's lives. It was a terraform. When activated it sends carbon, nitrogen, and hydrogen in the air to purify it. Really, it's clean. Take your helmets off. Give us a smell."
You take your helmet off and breath in the first non-recycled air on your planet in 200 years. You start to weep along with a solider on the opposite side. You put your gun down, walk over, and embrace him. In that moment the sun shown on the good and the evil… which turned out to only be a matter of perspective.
The Doctor, he said his name was "the Doctor", later told us, as we removed our uniforms and began to lie down in the grass to rub our naked skin in it, that our two peoples had originally been one of distant cousins before being put at odds by a traitorous General centuries ago who tried to withhold the orb from the people. He owned a gun store and business was bad. He traversed long terrain to sow deceit among the tribes about each others desire to wipe the other out and of a holy weapon that could destroy them all. He died as Governor of the planet and they had been fighting ever since.
In reality, the orb was a gift from time traveling strangers who left a note. It said:
This is a rough one. You and I both know it's against the rules, but just this once.
This brief little story is a generalized synopsis of a Doctor Who episode I saw a few years ago. It wasn't until I watched the newest episode that I realized that I had learned a great life lesson from the Doctor: empathy and perspective.
Each person in this story is seeing the world from a certain perspective. Each figure is enacting their own story, some of which has been told to them and some of which has been established by personal experience. Each person is also interacting with another perspective. Each army (let's call them X and Y) has been told an overarching story in which they are the valiant heroes who are being oppressed by the evil fiend from elsewhere. (It's strange that they never interact with each other other than the battlefield, but no one had ever had time or reason to question their motives.) They simply received their marching orders, warred, and died like their ancestors before them.
Neither army knew that their stories were so similar because they had never been given the chance to talk. They always had guns pointed at each other and no one can talk or listen honestly when they fear for their lives. However, this particular time there was a third perspective: a traveler's.
This traveler did not have the emotional attachment (baggage) of either group. He wasn't from their world. So, when he inquired of each people for their histories he realized that they were essentially telling him the same story from both sides of the line. The traveler also can read with clear eyes. In the legends of the armies they spoke of the prophet (the gun store owner) who identified who they were, who the enemy was, and how they should live. They didn't speak of a man who had a good deal of stock tied up in a guns business who needed to sow descent to build his empire. Only an outsider could put that story together.
But the Doctor did not chide them for their ignorance or belittle them for their tragic history. He simply brought the truth into the light and watched it literally change the world around them. What started as a holy conquest of right and wrong from two perspectives grew into a peaceful cooperative effort to rebuild a world torn down by hatred. It took seeing the world through a stranger's eyes to see that the opposing sides were actually working toward the same goal, but they had been deceived by someone seeking their own enrichment at the cost of generations, as to how to get there.
I learned what solidarity means from the Doctor. Solidarity is not support for another's cause. It is the ability to see with another's eyes and empathize with their story. Very few people are malicious for maliciousness' sake. They are most often acting a part within a story that was handed down to them by generations. In some cases leading actors in cultural stories tend toward hatred and bigotry instead of empathy and understanding. Solidarity is recognizing that life is difficult and it is difficult to survive on this planet, but we are all in it together.
This law does not originate with humans and neither does it find its fulfillment. Empathy and solidarity do not limit themselves to an ideology, makeup, or even species. True empathy is recognizing that everyone and everything is enacting the story of the universe. Untold and countless unique causes has brought everything to the point in time which we occupy. Enlightenment comes when the human (and I only designate human for now because other species don't have the capacity to read the word yet) pulls back the veil of their ego and realizes that everything in the world and universe comprise a biosphere where everything is dependent on everything else for sustenance and meaning.
Not only does this produce a profound sense of completeness, but it also unlocks the experience of (literal) universal joy. No longer is man the center of the universe for whom everything is made, but we are a part of a universal process… and that process is sacred. Recognizing this place in the universe open us up to empathize with all creatures because they are enacting the same story we are…just from different places with a different story and language.
The Doctor, in being able to show armies X and Y their common history and ultimate goal, was the central cause of their disarming and commitment to peace. I wonder what it would take for humans to realize our place in the Universe. I wonder what it would take to convince generations of tribes of humans that they are not the center of the universe for whom everything was made, but an integral part of a cosmic drama whose only antecedent is meaning itself. If everything came from nothing then everything was born equally at the same time, composed of stardust just like everything else.
Is this humility not the stuff that "truth" is made of? Because if a creature sees its environment and its fellow creatures as fragile fingerprints in the cosmic drama and can appreciate from experience that life is difficult…really difficult…then we can move to help each other--human, animal, and environment alike--because we know what its like to need help ourselves. Seeing the need for help in another person's eyes is the root of empathy; moving to help is the flower of solidarity.
The Doctor put that bud in the lapel in my coat.