Thoughts and Prayers, Jokes and Empathy

Yesterday we were talking a bit about the power of humor and how it can convey a desire to bring change, especially when it is charged with more than crass ridicule or obvious rebuke. And also, how a joke can become light to the shadows of indecency. N.B., when writing about being funny its never easy to be funny. <—Like this. I will persist.

Hitchens was capable of the cheeky Brit in ways unlike the more serious and allegorical Orwell. Rilke preferred earnest to funny but he was German so both matters may require further consideration. Tamil movies traditionally prefer the sweeter touch to funny, often more a gentle poke but they generally avoid drifting into the irony lane. Jokes in serious philosophical commentaries composed in Sanskrit are as common as that cobra meets mongoose love affair you’ve read about in National Geographic in your honest Republican dentist’s office. It’s not like those things can’t happen but some dentists are also Republicans.
Allow me to make yet another obvious point despite my best efforts to privilege prolix professional pedantry. (<—quadratic time featuring the letter “p.”) One more time: Trump doesn’t joke. Not in the way healthy people try to joke and fail. Not in the way I am not as funny as I wish I were. It’s more than a shame but he is rather a case study in not-funny when the joke is both announced, not a disqualification in itself but is funny to him., which means it’s decidedly not funny. Trump gets his ya-yas only when there’s the possibility of cruelty even if he receives flattery. This kind of pathology however isn’t exclusive to him, which is part of how he knows how to do both.
Nearly every day he’ll say something and soon disavow or dissimulate by saying it was all a joke. The examples run from the merely bigoted incitement to violence to downright crimes against humanity. When these mere observations of fact can successfully dismiss even the most disingenuous accusations from Fox then your deep in Trump Country. The dupes will arrive in Trumpville Station, however, whether or not they are told they have been had. That might be the same station where Neo is stranded (that’s you) and the train conductor programmed as a psychopath is beyond the reach of any update (that’s losing the election). Our current hope is to cancel the sequel of the movie that should have never been made even if it means the only thing left on Netflix that you haven’t seen during pandemic is the latest Bill and Ted.
We are desperate for funny to be funny again, aren’t we? Some people can be misunderstood because they _are_ joking. But Trump’s humor [insert hate quotes] is like everything else about him: a window into the empty chasm where his soul is supposed to be. Today’s case in point are the jokes from his daily super spreader events. He has threatened Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota, and Georgia all that he may never come back if he loses. If only, right? He has threatened to leave the country but hasn’t yet mentioned the place without an extradition treaty who would take him. Thoughts and prayers invited, of course, not for his exile where we would not lament never seeing him again but for tax fraud prison and honest accountability. If only. 
In the meantime, there are a slew of Republican Senators looking to be flies landing on whatever shithead will take them, even those like Sasse soon to be re-elected to their new minority status. [<—insert more prayers here in case our hand wringing pearl-clutching well-deserved anxieties aren’t enough to keep you reading this and you haven’t yet breathed into “it’s gonna be a landslide and they will have to take it…,” not that that is true but could be?]
So one more point, a serious one. Just a little. You can take it. Maybe two or more.
Trump isn’t wily or smart. It’s lizard brain, I tell you, but that’s often quite enough for humans committed to less activating the hippocampus and the important features of the left cortex. He responds like he acts: nothing but approval or reproof registers, if it’s not deemed flattery, it will be responded to with hate. The formula never varies. Sanskrit grammar could be easier than this but is no less formulaic. Complex sentences and actual ideas don’t fully (or even) register and that is a difference with a distinction.
The jokes Trump tests are made of the same simple dichotomy. He’s working out his need for approval but vigilant to the need to respond immediately if it was perceived criticism or taking away attention. It can take a moment for him to catch on if he finds the words or the ideas hard to comprehend, which is much of the time. He compensates by seizing on the bits he can hear which means that we often think he has more going on because _we_ do. We hear the ideas, register the context, think about the meanings. For him its only light, heat, or loss: the signal registers without complexity in a person so incapable of complexity that his normal uses dysfunctional chaos to compensate.
He is not alone among those who can’t tell an opinion from an honest argument or don’t want to. The conniving and con job has to get clearer to him, no matter how it is received. What we see in his latest ‘What if I lose?’ bits, now a nightly affair, is more than recognition that the loss is coming and that the threat to his loving cult means losing him. His invitation is that they too can conduct their relationships with everything in this world in similar transactions. You might think that peeps would be insulted or take some kind of subconscious umbrage when he reduces their value to him as _merely_ transactional. But that doesn’t seem to apply. He has always insulted, derided, and dismissed his dupes. And then “joked” about it with them. We call this out repeatedly to them, then they cheer, and we ask why, how can they not get it? 
The opposite of tranactionalism is caring but it’s actually more than that. Yes, it is hard to believe that 60 million people are as uncaring as Trump. Actually they aren’t. But that doesn’t make them particularly better either. MAGAs do care about things, even people—but not so much other people, people they don’t know but can scapegoat or fear or resent or use. It’s that empathy thing again raising its complex hood inviting us again to peer into the unfamiliar turning of the consciousness mandala.
To wit, empathy doesn’t require giving up your self interests, for reals. Selfless, altruistic, and nothing like the kenotic theology of Phillipians 2:4 are actually required to at least act empathetically. Feeling may be optional but empathic actions usually bring some small bit of better, however temporary. Becoming more resiliently empathetic could take some work or at least repetition. When someone genuinely feels empathy then the idea that one is giving up some self interest is either not important (it can even do unregistered, like how nice your Mom always was) or it can right be another satisfying self-interest. Feeling good or even okay about yourself isn’t selfish, it’s actually self-care. And abdicating self-care isn’t ever a good idea even when you opt for putting yourself in emotional danger or real peril.
When you sacrifice, you can like it, it’s okay. Don’t get too self-impressed and you won’t need to talk about how good you are. Notice that nothing about empathy is yet required. One can really reduce being human to being transactional: we have all the example we need. Of course, survival is neither guaranteed nor necessarily sacrificed. What is given up in the pure transaction is the opportunity to love more, to feel more grief, to be a tad more human and maybe (no promises) the world is a slightly (no promises) better place (maybe).
Sometimes keeping things to the level of honest transactions is the love, the best choice for all. But you can still care. It’s optional. It’s worth it because that’s what makes your soul visible to you in the dark. That’s how your inner vision adjusts to the available light that is the soul’s yearning to be. Not all souls still yearn after they’ve been lost to neglect or abuse, resignation or cruelty’s sick pleasures. The good news is that it doesn’t have to go that way. But you may have to try and keep trying.
We don’t need to further opine as to whether there even is a soul or if one can lose it entirely if we consider the idea that soul isn’t so much metaphysical or searched for as it is made and cultivated. We need to learn how to become more soulful (art helps, much like love) and all of that can be shown, taught, invited, even a bit cajoled or coerced. We can see how even shame or guilt as strategies of accountability can lead people to become more soulful. And if its genuine then there’s growth. It can happen. We’ve also seen what happens when those decidedly problematic feelings don’t appear to exist at all. The soulless Trump is the shameless one for whom empathy is simply unnecessary because the transaction will do. People apparently can be that vacant of heartfulness and, as we know, its ruinous when they also have power.
Things that people don’t have to do even if they need to do them are commonplace. Some of those failures involve neglect and lassitude, fear and anger, because there are lots of things involved usually all at once. But complexity is not only the explanation it is, for those unwilling to peer into their souls, the problem. Why do something that is complex _and_ not actually required? You would have to want it, whether that arises naturally or is hard learned. So if we want to feel more soulfully it’s because there’s some kind of recognition (it can be without awareness, that’s okay) that you would actually have to do some work. You need only “know” that there is more to life that surviving on your own terms. When you don’t know that or deny it, you’re some kind of childish libertarian or something. You know, other people, that’s their problem.
But ‘It’s my life and I’ll do what I want’ isn’t a song about not caring about others. It’s a song that makes you think about how to care for yourself when caring about others is just as important. Learning the meaning of that lyric and singing it into being can take time and effort, may require opportunity, maybe even a tad of privilege or privation to come through. It’s going to take examples too and that’s where Hitchens was a bit off his marks. We don’t have to emulate or follow to respect the power and importance of examples. We can care what others do and where those choices or circumstances might lead for worse and for better. The wise person knows not always to lead but to be mindful of following, not abdicating autonomy but delegating empowerment and creating more soul because others are offering theirs. We can’t go it all alone even when going together means we’ll get lost or frustrated or fail because that happens too. We gotta walk together even when watching our backs because that can only happen when there are people worthy of your trust in _their_ empathy and judgment.
Judgments without empathy? Those are part of what we fear from the likes of Barrett, Alito, Kavanaugh, Thomas, the Originalists who refuse progress for an imaginary liberty that is nothing more than their own preferences imposed. What we can’t find any humor in also warrants our attentions. So funny or not, joking or as Trump puts it “just joking,” if we dare to ask ourselves what matters we’re in for more life and likely better joy even when there are unforeseen consequences. May America choose more wisely than it has. You see even the guy who doesn’t pray can say “thoughts and prayers,” then laugh holding back the tears, and mean it.

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