It happened late in the evening toward the end of one of our last wholeness ethics meetings. A newer member — I’ll call him Eric — raised his hand after hearing another man speak on how wholeness ethics and the code of reverence had affected his life. “This is more a personal reflection than a response to what was said,” Eric began. He went on to explain that he’d long been labeled a “sociopath” because he had no empathy for others.
He didn’t think of this as necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, he talked about some of the benefits of a lack of empathy. “I can watch a program on TV about starving people and I don’t feel anything. I just change the channel. Or all the stuff I see in here, it’s a lot easier not to feel anything.”
But, he said, as the other man was talking about his wife coming to visit him when she had cancer, something unusual had happened. Eric started to open up to some of the feelings the brother was talking about. He started to feel what it must have felt like for his fellow inmate to sit in the visiting room with his wife who’d lost all her hair to chemo — the feelings of guilt and helplessness. Eric was telling us about this because he was concerned about it. He wasn’t sure he wanted to open himself up to this “connection to the whole” that we were talking about. Maybe it was better to just stay where he was.
We all face this question at some level: How much will we open ourselves to the suffering of others? Especially those who could potentially bring some of this suffering into our lives?
We try to avoid suffering and that’s normal and healthy — to a point. One of the central teachings of wholeness ethics, however, is that suffering cannot be avoided. It’s part of being conscious. Even if we succeed in completely numbing ourselves (as I’ve done at various point in my life) we quickly learn that numbness causes its own form of suffering: the pain of not feeling. So there are two kinds of suffering in this world: the suffering of connection and meaningfulness and the suffering of disconnection and meaninglessness. All we can do is choose one or the other of them.
Acknowledging this, wholism is in no way about ending or avoiding suffering. It’s about choosing the suffering that’s worthy of us and then relating with it in ways that increase rather than decrease wholeness.
As Eric spoke in our meeting, several thoughts were darting around in my mind like swallows. The first was that the word “sociopath” gets thrown around too much in places like this. I wanted to tell him, “Don’t believe it too readily.” Not only that, but in an environment as dysfunctional as prison, shutting down may represent a perfectly healthy psychological reaction. It is certainly widespread among staff and prisoners. Indeed, emotional deadness, disconnection, and an absence of genuine compassion is widespread throughout our entire culture.
However, the fact that it’s a healthy and sane reaction doesn’t mean it’s a healthy and sane response. Reactions are for immediate circumstances; responses are more measured plans about how we’ll go forward in the long term. Healthy reactions often cease to be healthy as they become longer-term responses. To live in and ultimately change the culture that invites, incentivizes, and often demands that we constrict and shut down, we must develop a response of intentionally and mindfully pushing in the opposite direction: toward expansion and an open heart.
We must put this work at the center of our lives and strive to build an ethics and a narrative around it. We must create community rooted in it — space and time set aside to seek and speak our truth, to tell our stories and to reimagine ourselves and our world.
This is what wholeness ethics is ultimately about. It is an ethics of ever-expanding empathy and authentic connectedness. As Einstein said, “Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison [of disconnection] by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”