The Virtue of a Moral Imagination

This Issue about an "art experiment" has been making it's way through the IF and PL blogoshpere, and I commented a little bit about it yesterday on the mothership.

I was laying in bed, and I was turning over what in the story was so objectionable. What hit me in the very pit of my stomach and left this horrible bitter feeling in my mouth? I think part of it is this:

We lack moral imagination in our society - we are unable to identify, to understand, to empathize, to demonstrate compassion for others, unless we have walked in their shoes. We, foolishly and childishly insist, that unless we have experienced a thing, we cannot fully know anything about it. We must drag every painful, sordid or angst laden detail out, and then we need to hold them up, and examine them closely, and then, only then, are we able to say - "Yes, I agree that this is painful". This is how you become a certified "expert".

I am willing to chalk this horrible art experiment as a natural consequence of our fallen condition. We, who are so alienated from each other, from God, from our families, from creation, from our communities, from our natural world. And if we are this alienated from what we should be so connected to, is it any wonder that we have lost a bit of our collective imagination, our collective ability to feel sorrow or empathy for others?

I begin to understand Mr. Hobbes' assertion that "Life is nasty, solitary, brutish and short". What I'm not so willing to do is say this is ok. I'm not so sure that we shouldn't aspire to more. The gut reaction isn't empathy, it's aversion. It's the mental equivalent of throwing your hands in front of your face and retching. I don't think art like this connects us, it makes us run from each other.

I don't wonder that Ms. Shvarts feels isolated, empty, and maybe disconnected from other women. Perhaps the "art experiment" is a way to feel, to be connected to the world around her? In a world that glorifies raw brutality, demands the right to view naked pain, is it any wonder that none of the project would give her pause? That, in her mind, the only legitimate way to understand the pain of loss would be to undergo one?

I set up such rules and labels. I assume that everyone is so terribly different from me. I often lack of ability to leave myself behind when I attempt to understand the motives and reasoning of others. I cannot look at Ms. Shvarts' work around miscarriage and abortion without walking through my own experiences. I read her comments, and I carry my dead son into the conversation. I hold him in my arms. I think of the blood in her art work, and I think of my blood on the hospital room floor, on my son. I say "This is the pain you would understand? Why? How would you ever think you could?".

In my stubbornness, I maintain that no one can understand my pain. I hold it to myself, a cloak that is only mine, and I deny any attempt to share this cloak, or to even let others look closely at it. This is mine, mine, mine, I proclaim. I remove myself from my community, marking myself as different.

I read the blog of an Anglican Parish Priest in my own diocese. Joe's second daughter has Downs. I thought of Joe and his wife and his daughter as they gave us the news about Gabriel. I wondered, questioned myself intensely, did we not save Gabriel because there was no way he could have been perfect? I so admired the decision they made to have their little girl. In a place where we didn't know quite which way was up, we struggled to know what to do. I thought, very briefly of phoning Joe, but it was late, and there was no time.

We want experts, that person who has the knowledge that I lack. A person who has walked this same road before us. We have those terrible media interviews, when one child is killed, we search out the parent of another child who died, and we ask, we poke, we prod. Society says, "Tell us Mrs. Smith, what do you think the other family is feeling". And here's the astounding thing: when I hear those interviews, I am never surprised by what Mrs. Smith says. I am never perplexed, and if I allow moral imagination some place in my life, I can at least get a good enough picture to imagine what this family must feel.

And this is the problem with Ms. Shvarts. This is what gives rise to the bitter taste in my mouth, the twisting in my stomach. It doesn't take much moral imagination to understand what the death of a child must be like. You don't have to wallow in blood, you can simply close your eyes and imagine. I can imagine what Joe might have said to us that night. He's a kind and compassionate man. And I can imagine that he would respond that our situations were really quite different. And that he could give me direction on "Anglican Morality" but that we would have to make our own decisions. And others would have to close their eyes, and imagine our circumstances.

But, there's a trick to that statement. I must accept the moral imaginations of others. When someone says sorry, or attempts to provide comfort through whatever failing words they have, I must allow that they understand my pain, and share a tiny bit of the cloak. I must not hold on to it so tightly. I must not allow the garments of mourning to so define me, that I am unwilling to allow any portion of the fabric to go. And this is hard.

And so, Ms. Shvart, in all humility, I do so wish that you had never decided that this was a pain you needed to experience. I suspect you could have imagined everything you needed to. That's what left this awful taste in my mouth, and the twisting feeling in my tummy - we live in a society that requires us to roll in the agony of others to understand pain.

edited: I'm sorry, apparently my ability to write clear, coherent prose with no typo's or missed words is lacking on Saturday's. I've made a few changes to make sure that the sentances flow and there aren't random workds left out.