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Love & Romance

Living & Coexisting by Courage, Generosity & Wisdom

Finn Janning says empathy and compassion are necessary for our thriving and even our survival.

“Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday. I can’t be sure.” These are the opening lines from Albert Camus’ novel The Stranger (1942). If these words seem gruesome, it is because the reader has an expectation that a ‘normal’ person simply has to know when his or her mother died. Expect this not, says Camus. Or perhaps he is saying, keep an open relationship with death. The French writer may also be asking: Does it make any difference? Today, or yesterday – my mother is dead!

However, it doesn’t get any better with regard to the reader’s possible expectations when the novel’s protagonist Meursault – the one whose mother is dead – does not seem to grieve at her funeral. On the contrary, he falls in love with a girl during the ceremony. Afterwards they go to the beach, where they bathe, and subsequently make love. The girl wants to marry Meursault, and he tells her that it is of no consequence, but if she really wants to, he will go along with it.

Meursault’s answer to the question of marriage seems ethically or spiritually lazy, in that he cannot be bothered to take a position. “Whatever,” he says indifferently. Nothing is important. Today or yesterday, marriage or no marriage: perhaps nothing is serious to Meursault. This is perhaps Camus’ way of showing the emptiness of a life that is morally and existentially indifferent.

Later in the novel, Meursault kills an Arab. No reason is given for the murder, possibly because murder cannot be justified. By this Camus indirectly mirrors the reader’s own morality to them: Do you believe that murder can be justified?

The novel’s title, The Stranger, refers to an identity that applies to the Other, or to other people, which otherness in some way distinguishes them from me and my ideals. Meursault is the stranger to conventional morality; but so are the Arab and the girl strangers to him. Nothing seriously connects them.

The Stranger
Marcello Mastroianni as Arthur Meursault in Visconti’s 1967 movie version of The Stranger
Image © Paramount Films 1967

The second part of the novel is Meursault’s trial. Here Camus shows how inadequate people are – purely existentially – when instead of trying to understand why Meursault did not cry at his mother’s funeral, they judge him. Apparently, his absence of tears itself makes him evil. This judgement is an example of ignorance due to a lack of understanding and involvement. Meursault’s behaviour does not fit into our (self-)image of normality, which is where all images are constructed. But is there only one way to relate to death – sorrow?

Meursault is fascinating. In one way, he lives with a hedonistic lightness of being; but he is also frightening, because he takes no responsibility for life. His life’s horizon is minimal: yesterday or today. What of the future? He is also a man apparently unable to show compassion or empathy.

Literature can challenge and expand our field of experience. Indeed, it is difficult to share sorrow without the aid of art. For example, death can easily steal time – bereavement can make it feel like time is standing still. In such situations, art can help by restructuring events, or our responses. Or poetry makes room for the expression of something that for most us is inexpressible. It is the power of imagination that makes this something possible, and also makes it possible to conceive a different and better world.

The ability to imagine something other than your own present thoughts is also the basis for empathy and compassion – just as we can only judge because we can imagine that the accused could have acted differently. In The Stranger, Camus illustrates the reader’s limited imagination, that is to say, our limited empathy and compassion, when Meursault’s behavior and his apparent attitude disputes and challenges our own outlook on life.

Empathy is the ability to vicariously experience the feelings of other people: to understand them, to sympathize with their outlook or perspective. Empathy binds. It’s about cohesion. Empathy can help us recognize that we are all connected, in that through it we begin to understand that all living creatures will experience sorrow, adversity, and pain.

Empathy also has a darker side. It can be abused, or used tactically, as when in The Silence of the Lambs Hannibal Lecter uses his empathetic abilities to satisfy his cannibalistic hunger. Hannibal Lecter is empathetic, in that he can understand others’ emotions well; but he is not compassionate. But as the Dalai Lama says: “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

Compassion is an extroverted behavior, expressed when we make contact, care for, protect, and comfort others. But I would also say that it is an introverted behavior, demonstrated when we recognize our own pain and then care for ourselves. For the same reason, the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer argued that morality stems from compassion. (And Charles Darwin considered compassion to be something particularly human.) Combining empathy and compassion can help us understand other forms of life. The mixture can clarify for us that there are existences that cannot survive without our care. It is precisely empathy and compassion that will ensure the future existence of homo sapiens – and other endangered species.

The Latin for empathy is compassio versque, which underscores the idea of suffering with ; while, for instance, the Danish medfølelse and the German mitgefühl stress feeling with. I am a supporter of the word’s Danish etymology, which, in contrast to a more classic Buddhist understanding of compassion, say, stresses not only suffering and pain but also joy and happiness. In other words, compassion is about being able to feel someone else’s emotional expression regardless of whether it signals pain and suffering or happiness and delight. This can be difficult for some people to accept.

The challenge is to help the other person bear the vicissitudes of life without taking on the full burden of their problems ourselves. The symbol of Buddhism is the wheel representing the Dharma – basic Buddhist principles and practices. Buddhism and other ethics of compassion are indeed a kind of wheelbarrow, in which we can place our sorrows and defects without displacing their importance (their weight), but allowing us to move. Most spiritual and ethical practices try to make life easier, by, for example, avoiding unnecessary distractions, letting go of the non-essentials, and affirming the inspirational in life. Such practices can help me to bear things that are otherwise unbearable.

Similarily, empathy and compassion can help us understand others so that we can better help them, without either dismissing their sorrow or undermining their happiness. The philosopher Edith Stein was murdered in a gas chamber in 1942, the same year that Camus published The Stranger. She had been offered an escape plan but refused to abandon her fellow internees. In her writings, Stein emphasized that only compassion is able to triumph over self-love, solipsism, and egotism. Instead, compassion always emphasizes something held in common. I feel happiness, she wrote, about that which makes someone else happy. And without compassion, too much can too easily end in strife, as is currently clearly seen in identity politics conflicts. Without compassion, it is difficult to understand Meursault; but it is also a lack of compassion that turns Meursault himself into a murderer. He seems incapable of making contact, of caring for other people, just as he is incapable of taking care of himself and his own pain. Here Camus emphasizes a classical existential point: ethics begins with oneself.

Still, if every change begins with oneself, it does not mean it has to end there. As another existential philosopher, Simone de Beauvoir, pointed out, if you do not respond to injustice, you do not live. The moral is that people must act because otherwise they are moribund – at the point of, or heading towards, death. In this way, insofar as they fail to stress interaction with others, many of today’s self-help practitioners and philosophers can be described as espousing a form of passive nihilism.

Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous statement ‘existence precedes essence’ may clarify what I am aiming at. The idea is that we are born without a fixed nature, but rather must choose or create ourselves daily. The human being does not have a predefined essence, but is rather free to, for example, test and develop norms for good or evil, for which he or she subsequently must take responsibility. By contrast, Camus’ Meursault does not show any interest in or care for any others, or even for himself.

Some people find it problematic when existentialism makes the individual the basis of morality, instead of some transcendent source such as a god. Without making this into a defense of existentialism, I do not believe that either Sartre or de Beauvoir make the individual the yardstick of all things. Rather, their project is very much built upon an acceptance that other people – just like themselves – are free. It can be difficult to live with this freedom in others as well as oneself – which is also why Sartre said ‘Hell is other people’. And that is true, sometimes. But as de Beauvoir writes in The Coming of Age (1970), “One’s life has value so long as one attributes value to the life of others, by means of love, friendship, indignation and compassion.” Put another way: sometimes hell is other people, but sometimes people are enriching and inspiring. It is the second realisation that Meursault lacks.

The socially-anchored existential philosophy I am presenting here can be summarized in three key concepts: courage or resistance; kindness or generosity; and wisdom or learning. More explicitly: 1) The courage to live – specifically, the courage to critique and resist prevailing norms and ideals; for example by critically questioning life’s truisms. Courage is about being open to anything. 2) Generosity in our coexistence with others. We must be generous with our insights and understanding, so that others may be able to find truth in them, or kindly debate us and correct our faults and mistakes. Generosity emphasizes that nothing exists on its own, but that we are always in an interaction that can be more or less profitable. 3) Wisdom as a survival strategy. The wise know what is important to pass on. Wisdom is not simply knowledge, but the ability to relate intelligently and courageously to the challenges of life. It requires an ongoing refinement and development of one’s senses, a continual focusing of one’s presence.

To live, coexist, and survive requires courage, generosity, and wisdom. So the truth about what kind of life is worth living is not only a question of following certain rules, but is tied to an ethical responsibility that continuously places one’s self in relation to others, and others in relation to one’s self.

© Dr Finn Janning 2022

Finn Janning studied philosophy, literature and business administration at Copenhagen Business School, and at Duke University, earning his PhD in practical philosophy from CBS. He lives in Barcelona.

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