Saturday, January 25, 2014

Kesey's Letter: Thoughts on Truth and Empathy

Note: This is a repost of something I wrote over a year ago. I'm posting it again now because my last post was about symbolic logic, of all things, and it doesn't get much more dry and analytical than that. I feel like I should restore some balance by posting something a little less cold and mechanical. In fact, I wrote this in part to remind myself not to be too cold and mechanical. But it didn't work. I slipped back into a bit of emotional tone-deafness. It's a failing I have--I get so caught up in thinking that I forget to feel. That's really quite stupid, for reasons I explore below. So I'm going to remind myself again--hanging on to past insights is one of the major purposes of this blog, after all. I thought about tackling this topic all over again, and then I realized I probably won't be able to say it better than I said it here. Or maybe I'm just feeling lazy. Anyway, here it is again:

I just read a letter by Ken Kesey, the '60's wildman famous for writing One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and for leading a band of pioneer hippies known as the Merry Pranksters on a cross-country trip in a psychedelic school bus--a trip immortalized in Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Kesey's life was, oddly, defined by school buses.  In 1984, after Kesey had long since settled down, his son Jed was on another school bus, on his way to a wrestling meet.  The bus started sliding, and went over a cliff.  Jed was comatose when he was pulled from the bus, and died a few days later. Kesey wrote the letter afterward to some of his closest friends, describing his son's last minutes in the hospital, and his touching funeral. It's a heartbreaking, honest, beautiful letter, written by a man bent with grief but still overwhelmed by his love for his friends and family, and for the relentless beauty of a world where birds keep right on singing, no matter who was just buried.

But don't rely on my second-hand account.  By all means, read it yourself (unless now is not a convenient time to shed a tear). I'm going to wait, though, and put the link at the bottom of this post. If you read the letter now, you're not going to want to come back to my anemic, overly-analytical scribblings which it inspired.  At least, I wouldn't if I were you.

My friend who recommended the letter to me said it made her “cry noisily.” It didn't quite do that to me, and that's probably my loss. But it did make me think. Well, that's not quite right. It made me feel, and then think. I'm usually more of a thinker than a feeler.  I'm one of those withdrawn ponderers who is as attracted to ideas as to people (unless they're people who have a lot of interesting things to say).  For years, I've imagined that I prefer facts to feelings, not realizing until today just how silly that statement is. Why it is so silly will take some explaining.

Kesey's letter gave me that emotional slap in the face you get sometimes--those rare times when you wake up and realize how REAL life is; how immediate and precious and passing-in-front-of-you-right-here-and-now it is. You get that feeling sometimes walking out of a good movie; like the whole world just got a fresh coat of paint and all your friends should get a hug.  Of course, Kesey's letter instilled a far more melancholy emotion in me than that, but an equally moving one.  He was a great writer, and I think his letter did exactly what it was meant to do: to make its readers feel a tiny hint of what he felt--enough, at least, to imagine the magnitude of his loss. As sad as my taste of his grief was, I'm glad I had it.  For one thing, that grief didn't break his sense of love and beauty, and those things came through in the letter, too.  Also, the encounter with of all those powerful emotions woke me up a little. Honestly, I don't read things like that very much. I usually read less emotional stuff; matter-of-fact books about science, history, or the more analytical kind of philosophy.  I have an unusually fierce desire to know as much truth as I can about this world, and those books are one of the main places I look for it.

But does that really make sense?  Are facts and logic the only places to look for truth?  Of course not!  But I forget that sometimes, until I have a moving experience like reading Kesey's letter. Those encounters grab me by the collar and tell me--show me, really--that feelings are truth.  They're just a different kind of truth. The sense of sadness and beauty the letter gave me—still ringing through me, but fading as I write, is every bit as true in its own way as "2 + 2 = 4."  I don't mean it's as universal or important, of course, just that it is itself a reality--the kind that we experience "from the inside". It is true in the sense of "accurate" because I can't be wrong about what it feels like to be me.  But it's also true in a deeper sense, because it's more immediate and direct than other kinds of truth.  When I see a coffee cup on my desk, my experience of the cup is not the same thing as the cup itself.  But when it comes to an experience itself, such as my emotion after reading the letter, the perception of the thing, and the thing itself, are one and the same.

This is probably about as clear as chocolate milk, so let me swerve briefly and say how I think this kind of experiential truth differs from factual truths.  With factual truths, what you experience is a representation—a reflection or description--of a thing out there in the world, not the thing itself. If I say it's true that Caesar lived at such and such a time, I just mean I have a set of facts in my head about Caesar, which happen to correspond accurately (if nowhere near fully) with reality. That's why philosophers call this the "correspondence theory" of truth. There are other compelling theories of truth, and most of them they have something useful to say. But I think this one is especially important, because it's what people generally mean when they say something is true: that it corresponds accurately and honestly with reality.

The reason I'm generally so enamored with this kind of of factual truth is that I think it matters (I don't care what the radical relativists say).  It matters because people act on what they believe. An obvious example is that people in this country once believed blacks were inferior to whites, and were allowed to act on that false belief by keeping them as slaves.  They were wrong ethically, partly because they were wrong factually.  This kind of thing convinces me that false beliefs--and their wicked cousins, deliberate lies--cause a majority of the pain in this world; at least the pain inflicted by people. Nevertheless, factual truth remains woefully under-appreciated.  Look at how many people believe things because they want them to be true, not because they have any evidence that they really are: "I don't need good grades", says the mediocre high school athlete, "I'm going to play pro ball." This kind of trap is easy to fall into, and I watch myself to try to avoid it (though I'm quite sure I'll never play pro ball).

But I need to watch myself with all my fact-checking and attempted logic, too. When I focus on those things too much, I'm prone to lose sight of that other kind of truth; that more internal, experiential truth. If I spend too much time trying to understand things intellectually, and forget to experience life viscerally and emotionally, then I've failed to understand it, just as surely as if I thought Caesar was Chinese. While factual truth is vital--maybe even sacred--so is experiential truth. As I keep writing and thinking, that's the emotional truth that Ken Kesey's letter made me recognize is already fading; replaced by these more analytical thoughts. Of course, those thoughts are themselves immediate experiences, and therefore just as true (in this experiential sense) as powerful emotions. The difference is they don't have the same emotional weight, and if you're not feeling the true weight of life, you're missing out on some pretty big truths.  So, while I'm saying that all internal, conscious experiences are true in the way I'm talking about, I'm paying special attention to emotions, as a subset of conscious experience (this wasn't clear in my head when I started writing, which is one reason I like to write--it makes you realize how half-baked your ideas really are).

Juggling these two kinds of truths is confusing, so let me try to distinguish them a little. I'll use bold black text for the correspondence kind of truth, and bold blue text for the experiential or emotional type of truth.

There's a balance to be struck here, as there usually. On the one hand, too much emotion can warp our reasoning and distort our priorities. If you get mad at somebody, that anger can make everyone else you meet that day seem like they're trying to be a pain. Even when they're not. So, truth as “experienced subjective reality” can clash with truth as “accurately knowing or describing reality.” But it goes the other way, too, with emotions. Neurologists and psychologists have shown that having too little emotion can also distort thinking. People with brain damage that dulls their emotions make terrible decisions. They don't give things their proper weight. It's dumb to let emotions warp your logic, but it's equally dumb to think cold, valueless logic alone can tell you what's important.  At some point you have to insert values into the logical cogs and gears (I think David Hume first pointed this out, but I might be wrong).  If Spock really had no emotion underpinning his faultless logic, he would have never gotten out of bed in the morning.  The trick is having the appropriate level of emotion, not too much or none at all.

Another difference between the two kinds of truths is that truth is more immediate in the short term (especially when the experience is a powerful one), but even more fleeting in the long term than factual knowledge (though that also fades at an alarming rate). Those overwhelming moments, when you get a hint of life's full gravity, don't last. They can't last, or we wouldn't be able to function. But there will be others, unless we sleepwalk or medicate our way through life. Some of those moments will be bad, some will be good, but all will be true. Not true because they are accurate reflection of an external reality (though they might be that as well), but true because they ARE realities, experienced directly. You can be wrong about how you interpret an experience.  You can see a stick and think, "Aagghh, a snake!!"  But you can't be wrong about what that experience feels like, at least, not while you're experiencing it. What you experienced is what you experienced. This is true whether the experience is mundane or sublime. 

This kind of truth; of being awake and alive, here and now, is a profound thing. What other part of reality can we experience--whole and entire--besides experience itself? None that I can think of.  Our consciousness of everything except consciousness itself is just a pale reflection of what is being perceived.  Take a look at your hand. It's part of you, but you can only see its surface, and if you're like me, you don't know the back of your hand very well at all. Could you draw a map of its nerves and veins? Can you say how many bones are inside, or how many cells make up one of those bones? Our mental representations are just shadows compared to the real thing.  And our words are just as puny, if not more so. The sight of a blue sky is bluer than all the words for “blue” in every language on Earth, because all those words are arbitrary.  Whether spoken or written, none of them resembles the color itself, though we may be in the habit of thinking they do. The words are, as Zen Buddhists might say, just fingers pointing at the sky. It's strangely easy to mistake the finger (the word) for the sky.  Have you ever tried to show something to your dog by pointing, only to have him stare blankly at your finger? Don't laugh too much. We do it too.  I did it a while back, while driving across Alabama.  After several hours of Alabama, I thought, "This state is a lot bigger in real life than it is on the map". Then I realized how ludicrous that thought was, but for a second, I had been thinking the map was the real thing.  It isn't.  It's a pale, simplified, abstracted representation.

As I've said, all sensations, however mundane, are equally true. But the more emotional ones are more important; more weighty. They're soaked with value; laden with the good, the bad, and the ugly...not to mention the beautiful. They're full of those things, in other words, that make life worth living. Even if you're like me, and you like your facts cold and hard, you're looking for those facts because you like them. That's an emotion.  And that's why it's silly for me to say I prefer facts to emotions. Who am I kidding?  Preference is an emotion.

Of course, I don't mean we should all turn into navel-gazing Emo kids. We shouldn't focus exclusively on our own feelings, however overwhelming they can be, and forget about other people. That would be selfish, but it would also be a distorted view of reality (giving our experiences more prominence than they deserve) and would thus betray truth. But it's true that emotions are solitary experiences, limited to our inner world. I may try to guess at your emotions, and even empathize, and thus feel as though I'm sharing in them. But I can't be certain my feelings really reflect yours. Does this mean that when we empathize with other people, we're back to second-hand, descriptive truth?  Are we limited to reading the wine list, instead actually tasting the wine?

I don't think so. Maybe empathy isn't like reading the wine list so much as trying a small, watered-down sample. If we empathize successfully, we really do feel something of what they're feeling.  Which brings me back, finally, to Ken Kesey's moving letter. That letter gave me a tiny, faint taste of the bitter wine that life had forced him to gulp.  It also gave me a taste of the good stuff--the friendship and beauty he had mixed in to cut the bitterness (those are the ingredients that made the letter uplifting, instead of just depressing).  Not only did I get that taste, I got it nearly eleven years after Ken Kesey himself died.  That's one of the magical things about good writing--it builds bridges of mutual feeling across canyons of time. But whether the feeling is transmitted in writing or in person, when we empathize, we aren't just learning the truth of someone's feelings.  We're tasting truth, as well. We feel sad too, if only just a little. When that happens, the internal, first-person experience enlarges, until it bridges more than one mind.

Is such an experience--an experience shared across multiple minds---more weighty, possibly even more true, in some whole new sense that I haven't color-coded yet? I don't know, but it seems plausible. If so, then maybe there are three kinds of truth at work here.  In addition to factual truth and experiential/emotional truth, maybe there's also a kind of shared TRUTH which encompasses both, and joins individual minds into something bigger.  If truth is in the first person singular, then TRUTH is first person plural.  It's not just what I know, it's what we know, and feel together.  This would be the hardest of all truths to verify and measure, but it might be the most precious. Could it be that empathy, compassion, and shared experience add up to give us the biggest, most profound TRUTH of all?  I think it's possible.  Sometimes, I even wonder if that's what life is really all about: the challenge of expanding all three kinds of truth, across ever widening circles of understanding and empathy.  If so, then my solitary, analytical, truth-seeking self has some learning to do.  But all this is just speculation.  Whether it's really true (or even true or TRUE), I don't know.  How do I find out?  Maybe I should stop staring at this computer and thinking, and go walk in the sunshine for a while.  Then maybe I'll ask some good friends, to see if they they feel the same way I do.


Ken Kesey's letter:


  1. I don't think I can stand to read the letter, but... would you believe that I was reading up on Ken Kesey not three days ago and also had to pause and think about him in a different way after I read the part about his son? Loved this post. Keep 'em coming.

  2. Thanks :) You know, if I believed in synchronicity, I might believe it about Ken Kesey. For some reason, years ago, I searched for him online. I came to a website run by another of his sons. There was a message on it that said, "Dad has passed away today". I still can't remember why I was thinking about him. I hadn't read him in years, but I went to that website on the day he died. Weird. Of course, my only other "psychic" experience (if I believed in that sort of thing) was the morning I woke up wondering how old Kurt Vonnegut was. I got up, went downstairs, and Mom told me she just heard he had died. Eh, if you live long enough, some unlikely coincidences are bound to happen. Funny that it happened with two of my favorite writers, though.

  3. I read this yesterday and it obviously wound it's way into my subconscious. I had a dream about Leah and Linda last night and it sure did make me miss all you folks.

    Love the blog, Ross. Bravo.

  4. Thanks, Chas! We miss you too. Clearly, we just need to get out there for a visit before long.