a constraint upon our imaginations


Leon Wieseltier, in the Washington Post way back in June, wrestles with the expanses of pain and the limits of our imagination.

As I watched “The Deer Hunter,” I was struck by the scattershot nature of American compassion. There are many groups in our society that suffer hardship and discrimination, but we confer moral glamour on some of them and not on others. We are never concerned in equal measure about them all. We are inconstant in our decency, which is perhaps the most common form of indecency. The media has made our attention, and therefore our mercies, fickle; from our digital sources we know about all sorts of suffering, and we just live with the knowledge. But our passing sympathies, the soft betrayals of the intermittent heart, are not exactly random.

The partiality of our consciences, our inability to care about all who have a proper claim upon our care, is not the result of a constraint upon our budgets, or more generally upon our institutions of politics and government. It is the result of a constraint upon our imaginations. Ethical principles are most commonly ascribed to the operations of reason, but we need to remind ourselves of the role of the imagination in moral action.

…this mental and spiritual preparation, is what transforms justice from a fantasy into a cause. All this is very uplifting. But it is hardly the whole story. The white working class differs in a significant way from the people who have discovered it. Our moment does not consist only in millions of Americans stepping outside themselves and proclaiming their sympathy for others. It consists also of millions of Americans staying inside themselves and proclaiming their sympathy for themselves. And just as the emphasis on other people’s tribulations expands us, the emphasis on our own tribulations contracts us.

Pain has no special access to truth.