“. . . In a stable, dark and dreary, who will be the first to kneel . . .”

Who will be the first to kneel?

Who will be the first to kneel?

Among the contradictions, inconsistencies, and dissimilitudes in our celebration of Christmas [or the Winter Solstice or whatever you celebrate at the end of December] is a misconception about the definition of the word “humble.”  Dictionary.com first defines it as “not proud.” Then come the interesting meanings. “Having a feeling of insignificance, inferiority, subservience . . . low in rank, importance, status, quality . . . courteously respectful . . .”

Who in America (or any other Western country) wants to have a “feeling of insignificance, inferiority, subservience?” Not movie stars. Not professional athletes. Not recording artists. Not Rachael Maddow. Or Ted Cruz. Or Alice Walton.

NOT YOU OR ME, EITHER.

You’re educated enough to understand the word “dissimilitude,” and you have a computer of some sort. You probably drive a nice car and know the best restaurant in your city. (Stephan Pyles in Dallas. I’ve eaten there.)

Given all of that, whether you are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Humanist, or none of the above, you would not be caught dead kneeling in a pile of cow shit. Might ruin your Gap jeans.

But, with the best of them—even you non-Christian folks—we sing, in the holiday spirit,

In a stable, dark and dreary,
Who will be the first to kneel?

(16th-century Polish carol, “In a manger He Is lying”). Never mind if you don’t know that exact one. You likely know “What Child

Vierne "Final." All those notes!

Vierne “Final.” All those notes!

Is this,” sung to “Greensleeves.” I have Muslim friends who, of course, don’t know those carols. But, believe me, there’s plenty of Ramadan sentimentality to go around. And, my goodness, Chanukah? So we all get ooey-gooey feelings about holidays based loosely on our religion.

Back to my original assertion—you wouldn’t be caught dead with your knees in a pile of horse manure. But you’d sing a song about it and feel ever-so-spiritual (or at least cuddly).

ME, TOO.

Here’s this baby in a place no self-respecting mother would give birth—a manger. Have you ever been in a barn where cows and other such filthy animals live? I’ve helped shoo the cows in from the fields to the dairy barn and sprayed the floor with water to keep the cow shit washed away so it doesn’t get mixed in with the milk. Nebraska, 1959 or so.

That’s as far from the windows of Neiman Marcus on Main Street in Dallas sporting their Alexander McQueen fashions as you can get. But I’ll bet everyone who buys one of those dresses either as a Christmas gift for his wife (do men do that?) or for herself to wear to the Christmas party she simply has to attend would sing

In a stable, dark and dreary,
Who will be the first to kneel?
At the crib where Christ is sleeping,
Who will be the first to kneel?

BUT DON’T GET SELF-RIGHTEOUS.

Those of us who buy our underwear at Target because we can’t afford McQueen will sing it, too. While we all refuse to kneel in the cow dung.

I’m not getting all holier-than-thou here. One of my heroes, Eleanor Roosevelt, said,

You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, “I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.” You must do the thing you think you cannot do.

I’m grateful people like her keep things moving in (at least now and then) the right direction. But frankly, I’m more grateful I was born with weakness, fear, and timidity instead of courage. Epilepsy and bipolar disorder. And self-centered fear. I’m grateful I’m a wimp. Otherwise I never would have discovered that it’s OK to kneel in cow dung. In fact, it’s sort of a natural place to be. For all of us.

Not because I’m a piece of it—don’t get me wrong, I’m not groveling.

No, I’m (I think by this age I can be confident that I am) moving into the real meaning of “humility.” That is, “low in rank, importance, status, quality . . . courteously respectful.”

When I play the organ, it’s usually not very fast. I’m neither physically nor mentally adroit enough to play all those notes. (My “normal” temperature is 97.5.) Nothing about me is athletic—not even my fingers. I used to hate that my organ playing is best when it’s slowest.

Once when I was practicing at the University of Iowa on the Clapp Hall organ (destroyed by a flood) a friend—a real organist (played at the Mother Church in Boston)—wandered up to the loft. I was playing the Bach chorale prelude on Allein Gott (BWV 662), a languid work with the melody ornamented and strung out over a long introspective accompaniment. When I finished she said she was glad someone in the department could make sense out of that kind of slow music.

I resented it. I wanted to play the Vierne “Final” she was working on. No way could I then, or now.

And now I know. Or am beginning to understand. “Low in rank, importance, status, quality” is where I belong. That’s not self-hatred or any of those things your therapist or AA group warn you about. At least for me, it’s where I can pay attention. Where those mysterious tones we call music fit together so I can comprehend them. Where I’m most likely to understand anything. Anything at all.

In a manger He is lying
Who will greet Him as He sleeps?
Baby Jesus, infant Christ-child,
Who will greet Him as He sleeps?
Wake, ye shepherds, and as ye play
Gladsome songs and carols gay,
Seek the Babe ere break of day;
Seek the Babe ere break of day.

Angel hosts have sung their story,
Who will follow the bright star?
Told of Christ in all his glory,
Who will follow the bright star?
Wake, ye shepherds, and sing Noel,
Help the angel chorus swell,
To the earth glad tidings tell;
To the earth glad tidings tell.

In a stable, dark and dreary,
Who will be the first to kneel?

At the crib where Christ is sleeping,
Who will be the first to kneel?
Wake, ye shepherds, Seek out your King!
Play your songs and loudly sing,
Till the air with echoes ring;
Till the air with echoes ring.

N.C. Wyeth and I cry at TV commercials (and Youtubes of cats or marriage proposals)

wyeth_1886_1936_cokeIt’s amazing to me that, in an age when critics and intellectuals who pontificate about art** seem to say that our post-post-modern society can’t comprise sentimentality much less empathy, we are bombarded with images on our electronic devices that are designed to elicit sentiment, or sympathy, if not empathy.  [**See truncated list below of articles I’ve read recently.] 

Say you see a lost dog who needs some TLC. Take a picture with your iPhone and put it on Facebook with a caption about loving animals. Want to make a spectacle of your proposal of marriage to your partner? Get your friends to learn a dance and show up at Home Depot and pop the question as the finale of a musical production. Then put it on Youtube.

And then there are the TV commercials that go right for the ventricles. Some of them are so emotional (sympathetic, empathetic) that I can’t figure out what their message is. You know, ads like these:

http://unrealitymag.com/index.php/2010/02/11/eight-surprisingly-touching-commercials/

I’m mystified that when everything is frenetic and images on screens move as fast as possible, with overwhelming color and fantastical shapes, and with background music so pulsating and loud as to be basically noise pollution, some companies still use commercials that attempt to draw people in, to invite emotional reactions, to induce (or seduce) one to pay attention.

I’ve always cried at commercials, that is, at those designed to pull at our heartstrings and arouse so much empathy that we don’t even notice we’ve succumbed to an ad for Pantene (see the link above).

Remember the phone company commercials several years ago with dad and mom or granddad and grandmom talking to the family scion off at college somewhere and everyone misty-eyed with the pleasure of hearing each other’s voices? Well, they were clumsy experiments at inducing sentiment alongside the tear-jerker Extra Gum has recently produced!

I have become more susceptible to such emotionalism as I have aged. I think, however, it is not simply emotions that get to me. I think—I hope—I have become more empathetic as the years wear on. My capacity for empathy grows as I become more and more aware of the reality of the end of my life. And this awareness allows me to be aware of the realities of others’ lives. (That, of course, may be self-delusion because I may simply be a sentimental old fool.)

OK. I’m not trying to be scholarly here (I don’t know how). I just think this is interesting.

Do you "feel with" Anthony McQueen at Neiman Marcus?

Do you “feel with” Anthony McQueen at Neiman Marcus?

“Empathy” is an English 1909 translation of the German word Einfühlung by the psychologist , Edward Titchener. It’s interesting because he translated the German syllable for “one” [ein] as if it were the Greek “em” that means “with.” In other words, “empathy” is “feeling with.”  Carolyn Burdett details this history as well as the use of the word by the British writer Vernon Lee (1856-1935) who

explains this awareness [of feeling “with” someone] as “the essential nature of all sympathetic movement because it grasps the fundamental fact that our pleasure in an object or another person is animated and lively. That liveliness is founded on the fact that the states we perceive as qualities of another person or thing “are our own states” (1).

We are able to feel “with” someone only as we are aware of our own feelings.

I repeat Lee’s assertion that empathy

grasps the fundamental fact that our pleasure in an object or another person is animated and lively. . . [because]  states we perceive as qualities of another person or thing ‘are our own states. . . that is to say, the attribution of our [feelings to another] is accompanied by satisfaction or dissatisfaction because it takes place in ourselves.

We are pleased or displeased by feeling “with” someone else because we intuit that the feelings are the same as are our own. And we respond to art (TV commercials?) because it somehow embodies our feelings “with.”

That may seem obvious. But it isn’t.

Art critics and historians are (at any rate they used to be) disdainful of paintings by such people as N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945) because, it was said, they were mere illustrations of sentimentality. Illustrations made for profit. So Wyeth paints a picture of an old man with his granddaughter sharing a Coke. We respond to it because we have the “feeling” ourselves of the warmth, security, love—whatever it is—of that kind of sharing. Does the fact that Wyeth painted it for money, to advertise Coke, diminish our empathy?

Maxfield Parrish. Another one of those "feel with" artists.

Maxfield Parrish. Another one of those “feel with” artists.

Nope.

Everything else in our society is for sale, so why not our feelings.

Oh, harsh. No it’s not. Let’s be real.

If Johann Sebastian Bach had not been employed to make music that advertised Lutheran theology every Sunday, the history of Western music would be far different than it is. If Franz Josef Haydn had not needed to make a living, our symphony orchestras would have 106 fewer works to play. It seems to me it doesn’t matter what the purpose of a work of art was at its inception (of course I know there are exceptions). What matters is that it captures something of our “feeling with” someone else.

The “feeling with” is what’s important. Empathy may be the most important of human experiences. When you get as old as I am, perhaps you’ll understand. And cry at even more commercials.
______________
(1) Burdett, Carolyn. “Is Empathy the End of Sentimentality?” Journal of Victorian Culture 16.2 (August 2011), 259-24.

THE TRUNCATED LIST OF ARTICLES I’VE READ RECENTLY. (You don’t have to have empathy with me about them.)

Kaufmann, David. “Archie Rand’s ‘The Eighteen and Postmodern (Mis)Recognition’.” Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies 21.2 (2003): 120.
Mason, Julia. “Light for Light’s Sake: Thomas Kinkade and the Meaning of Style.” Journal of Popular Culture 45.4 (2012): 807-827.
Roberts, John. “Art and Its Negations.” Third Text 24.3 (2010): 289-303.
Robinson, Emily. “Touching the Void: Affective History and the Impossible.” Rethinking History 14.4 (2010): 503-520.
Townsend, Christopher. “The Future of Futurism.” Art Monthly 329 (2009): 5-8