The infallible full-beam empathy test

Why Astonishment Rocks?

Well, in my interesting life experience I’ve found that professional types, usually middle or upper class, or ‘aspiring’ people, have a tendency to be cynical about people and life. Their sense of wonder and awe at life – and also their basic empathy? – is somehow blunted. This is not for a moment to denigrate professionals such as media commentators, psychotherapists or academics  as human beings. I’m talking about social tendencies here not the sacred dignity of any person. And everyone of us is capable of change.

More on empathy very shortly.

In this new blogsite, I intend to look at astonishment and wonder and lots of other related questions in some hopefully interesting detail.

I grew up in a Salford slum and very few of the people I know or care about, or am interested in, lack a facility for astonishment and wonder, no matter how hard their life has been. Being always quite bright and inquisitive, I’ve long puzzled how so called ordinary people could retain at least an element of wide eyed innocence and delight at the world, yet professionals and experts often look at that same world with a baleful, suspicious or weary eye. It should be the other way round, surely?

A number of brilliant thinkers and artists have pondered this problem of cynicism, or the related idea of a general scepticism at life. Chief among them is the North American philosopher Stanley Cavell who influences me greatly. Writers like Cormac McCarthy and Michael Ondaatje also explore this theme in great depth – the general pervasiveness of scepticism and a lack of wonder and then those brave enough to believe in miracles and great feats of determination, or will, or dreams. They also give telling depictions of those who lack any empathy, or are cynical and mean, damaged in some way.

The brilliant North American novelist Marilynne Robinson has written persuasively on how sceptical experts now control social discourse:

“A central tenet of the modern world view is  that we do not know our own minds, our own motives, our own desires … [but] … certain well qualified others do know them.”

Absence of Mind, Marilynne Robinson

Ms Robinson, it seems to me, hits the professional nail on the head with this quote. We are told we don’t know our own minds anymore, but ‘experts’ do.

The problem is that perhaps apart from the late (very sadly lamented) John Berger, few of the good guys, the astonishers let’s call them, actually speak to ordinary people in an ordinary way and this is where I  can help. That at any rate is the basic aspiration of AstonishmentRocks.

In many of these short blogs I will try and tell a tale or record a short note about a particular issue.  So let’s start with empathy.

Empathy – our innate, untaught, ability to understand and share the feelings of others.

The infallible full-beam empathy test

If you drive a car at night, particularly in country areas, like where I live in Ireland, but also in most places, you will get this point immediately. Because every single one of you has dipped your headlights if they were on full beam and a car has approached from the other direction. The driver coming the other way has almost certainly done the same.

Why have you done this? You don’t know the opposite driver and he/she doesn’t know you. And  it’s not to avoid an accident, because this dipping or dimming procedure usually starts from a long way off.

It is simply a common courtesy and gesture. It doesn’t make us all saints in lots of other regards but it’s a sign of universal empathy nonetheless. A small miracle. The kind of little wonder we’ve stopped recognising.



@Paul Larkin, Carraic, Gaoth Dobhair, Mí an Mheithimh