words: 2477[Note: This is my take on a thing I’ve been learning from Max Harms. He’s very good at it, from my perspective. I am not.]
When I savor a wine, I am careful and slow. I attend and adjust, listening intently, as though I’m waiting for a very quiet song over an old radio that I have to tune.
What is the song? It’s never “this wine tastes good” or “this wine tastes bad”. The song was composed by someone else, and they were trying to communicate what they were thinking and feeling as they crafted it. My goals and values are not components of their song.
The song of the wine itself is carried on things like “a tingly peppery spice at the tip of my tongue”. It interacts with my own mind, of course, and when it’s filtered through my memories it might come to me as “the time when Grandpa and I were eating oatmeal raisin cookies while he smoked a pipe”. From that I can extract “oatmeal, raisins, and tobacco”, and hold those perceptions against the other sensations created by the wine, to taste the larger shape of its flavor. I sometimes do free-association while drinking wine, to pick up more subtleties like this.
There are lots of subtleties, lots of sensations going on all at once, and I have to listen closely to hear all the parts. I usually have to listen multiple times.
In early college, when I drank wine for the first time outside of Mass, my experience was very different. I was mainly concerned with whether I could tolerate the taste long enough to get drunk.
I don’t mean to say that it’s better to experience food and drink as art. Sometimes wolfing down the nutrients needed to run my body is exactly the right thing to do.
What I’m pointing at, rather, is that my brain is programmed to efficiently assess whether food is safe to eat, and whether it is calorically rich. Chefs, winemakers, and other culinary artists are doing their own thing, which is almost orthogonal to the goals (so to speak) of biological evolution. So, if I want to know what a carefully crafted food actually tastes like, then I have to do something weird with my mind. I have to be an epicure, which I would not do by default, because it’s not part of a human mind’s factory settings.
This is, of course, a metaphor for rationality in general. But I’m going to apply it a bit more precisely than that.
When I struggle to empathize with someone (which is pretty much every time I try, in my case), the main obstacle is the very same thing that originally prevented me from tasting wine.
By default, I’m only perceiving a few blunt fragments of info about how they relate to my goals and values. Are they smart? Do they signal like my in-group? Are they easy to talk to? Do they enjoy the same things as me? Can I tolerate this wine long enough to get drunk?
And I’m filtering the info so quickly that I’m not even aware it’s happening, unless I’m looking right at the process. The thing that makes it to consciousness and feels like “my perception of the person” actually contains more of my song than theirs. I’ve discarded most of their personhood.
Again, I’m not saying that this is always bad. I need to be able to make quick judgments, sometimes, about whether a person is safe or dangerous, friend or enemy, smart or dumb.
But if I want, for whatever reason, to see them for more of what they are than for what I am, I have to do a weird thing with my mind. I have to be an epicure of personhood, to see them as an artistic experience in the midst of creating itself.
I can’t always do it. It’s hard for me. But when I deliberately choose to try, and then it works, here’s how that happens.
First, I take on a mental posture I call “dreaming”. It’s the one I use for brain storming, fiction writing, and solving lateral thinking puzzles. Its central features are disinhibition and creativity. If you want to know what it feels like, name as many animals as you can in the next minute.
When I name as many animals as I can in the next minute, it starts out feeling sort of panicked, then easy and familiar, and then I feel struggle when I begin to run out of dogs, cats, and elephants. And then, often, something shifts, and things start flowing again. I name animals I haven’t thought about for a long time, like tapirs and rat snakes. I describe animals whose names I can’t remember, like those fish with the transparent heads and you can see their brains. I even begin to name things like venus fly traps, and then I go, “wait, that’s not an animal”. Everything after that shift is “dreaming”.
So I start to dream about the person in front of me, using the bits and pieces of what I know of them (and of people in general). They are a prompt, a seed for association.
I dream about what they might have done that day - taking the train to work, Kindle sitting on their lap as the train lurches and roars; meeting their spouse for lunch and receiving a kiss on the cheek; choosing the green shirt they’re wearing from among the other shirts in their closet. I dream about experiences from earlier times in their life - riding in the back seat of a car, boxes crammed in all around them, as their family moved across the country, or the last conversation they had with their best friend from high school. If I know that being a student is important to them, and that they’ve been struggling with the structure and culture of academia, I might imagine them watching the clock during a dull lecture.
Next, I shift into first person perspective while I continue dreaming about them. At first the shift is just outrospective: the arm rest of the couch is under ”my” arm, and I don’t see my own head or face as I make eye contact with “my” best friend from high school.
But then I focus in on the emotions, especially the ones related to what they want in that situation, and I feed in anything I can infer about their values, aspirations, and talents. What might it be like for this person to visit their hometown after a couple years of college, and hang out with someone they used to be close to but has gone their own way since then?
I might get something like pining, and the feeling of familiar ground being suddenly strange. That would be mixed with curiosity and caring. Maybe a little shame that my caring is more “for old time’s sake” than genuine interest in the person in front of me. I try to see the answers from a first-person emotional perspective, just like like the visuals but fleshed out with introspective sensations as well this time. It feels like filling my own body with their experiences.
Then I change the genre from “semi-biographical Earthfic” to something like “semi-biographical far-future utopion sci-fi/fantasy”. I use those emotion-and-value-laden first person experiences from their past and present, and dream about what they might become, what they might do, what it might feel like to be them, if all their current limitations were eliminated. If they could actually get what they wanted. If they lived in a world optimized for their own flourishing. If, basically, they were a god.
(I often set this a couple centuries out in a world with a slow AI takeoff, instead of a foom-type intelligence explosion. The first thing is a lot easier to imagine in concrete detail, and I’m going for richness over accuracy.)
My father is a high school biology teacher. He also raises animals, and loves nurturing things in general. When I did house chores as a kid, he’d have me cover the mesh ceilings of terrariums with ice so that as it melted, his lizards could drink the rain.
^That time the emu got cold so Dad gave it his sweater.
When I imagine his distant future, sometimes I think of a whole planet with nothing but interesting creatures for him to cultivate and love. He doesn’t spend all his time there, but he at least takes long visits.
I think of him exploring an alien forest and finding a crab that shimmers strangely. (Surprise, interest, curiosity, excitement, examination.) He takes it back to his lab - a giant greenhouse in the middle of the forest, packed with all kinds of sciency gadgets. (Adventure, planning, inquiry, caretaking, diligence.) After lots of investigation, perhaps with the help of younger naturalists he mentors, he understands what causes it to shimmer. Then he begins to manipulate pockets of his planet’s ecosystem so that other creatures can shimmer as well. (Creativity, advancement, satisfaction.)
I call this “tasting godhood”. Or, sometimes, “tasting personhood”. They are the same.
At this point in the process, it becomes hard not to see the person as an artistic process. But even so, I might move back and forth between different periods in their lives: their future as it contains their past, and their past as it contains their future. I feel for the similarities between the experiences of the future god and the experience of the present person. Dad’s experience as he makes a comfortable space for the shimmery crab in his forest greenhouse is similar to his experience when he covers the terrariums in his apartment with ice cubes. One is a human, and the other a god, but they are instances of a single person.
^Dad’s sulcata tortoise has a Tile glued to its shell, so he can be found via bluetooth when he wanders off. One day Darwin dislodged the Tile, and then went on a grand adventure. I found out when Dad made a Facebook post asking all his students and friends to keep an eye out for a seventy pound tortoise roaming the countryside. “His tracker isn't working. I've been searching for hours,” he wrote. “He is very friendly, and loves strawberries.” If it had gone on any longer, I think he’d have printed up dozens of “Have you seen this tortoise???” fliers and scattered them about the little towns near his farm. But Darwin came back, all on his own! And Dad fed him fruit to welcome him home.
The specific experiences I imagine are probably quite different from the ones the person actually has/had/will have, but the point is that I’m perceiving them in a different way. I’m looking for the particular notes in the complex bouquet of their personhood, not deciding whether I can tolerate them long enough to collaborate on a project. Not drinking the wine just to get drunk.
It’s a lot easier to empathize with a person when I’m actually paying attention to them, instead of to how they relate to my goals. This is pretty obvious, in retrospect. But unless I do the weird epicurean thing, “how they relate to my goals” just is what “perceiving another person” feels like, even when I’m deliberately focusing on them. And when I’m not deliberately focusing on them, perceiving another person tends to feel like walking past furniture.
Undoubtedly, that’s partially because I’m missing important social software that comes pre-installed for most people. Still, much of what I know about how human minds work suggests that even neurotypicals spend most of their time a lot closer to the “wine is good or bad” side of social perception than the “oatmeal cookies and grandpa’s pipe” side. At the very least, they lack control over their position on that spectrum.
But there’s another way this practice might be used even when empathy is very easy for you: Tasting godhood doesn’t have to be directed at someone else. You are a person as well.
I often look for my own godhood by this method. I go through exactly the same procedure - dreaming about specific experiences, imagining the present, imagining the past, speculating about the future - using myself as a prompt. In some ways it’s easier, because I can draw on memories rather than just imaginings.
Why would I do this, if I already know exactly what it’s like to be me? Well in fact I’m often not aware of what it’s like to be “me”, in the sense of being a complex pattern of values and experiences and decisions, distributed across time. It’s easy to focus in on the pieces of the pattern that are surfacing in the current moment, forgetting that there are many other ways I have been or might become.
And it’s easy to tell a simple story about myself that’s really just a few blunt fragments of info involving whatever happens to be on my mind at the moment. So it’s especially useful to spend some time tasting my godhood when I’m judging myself harshly, when I’m only able to see myself in terms of simple hateful judgments like “I am broken” or “I am stupid and lazy”.
I think this method is an especially good way into self-compassion at those times. When I’ve tried to find self compassion by other methods, the main sticking point has been that they work by denying or at least distracting me from accurate perceptions of weakness or whatever. Telling my shame to just shove it almost never works.
When I taste my godhood, though, I see the truth of those judgements in context. I see the way my struggles result from conflicts between what I most deeply value and the constraints of a broken world. And this happens as a side effect of seeing myself Originally, even if I’m just trying to “remember myself”, as opposed to processing shame in particular.
I don’t feel hatred toward an oak seedling for not being a hundred feet tall, especially when it’s growing in a desert. Even though it’s small and fragile. (Of course it’s small. Of course it’s fragile.) Instead, I feel love and awe, because I can see what it’s trying to become. I want to give it water so it can reach up into the sky. When I see myself Originally, I perceive myself as a god seed just beginning to sprout.
Tasting the personhood of anyone feels this way. A person is a god. Everything else is mere humanity.