Theodore Zeldin, the astonishingly intelligent and highly esteemed philosopher was, unsurprisingly, wonderfully profound – he talked for about 25 minutes to kick proceedings off and he explained his thinking behind the search for a meaningful life. Sitting on a tall coffee shop stool and speaking into the microphone, he radiated thoughtfulness and wisdom – he talked about (and I’m paraphrasing a little here as I stupidly wasn’t taking notes) our minds being like antique shops, full of – whether we realised it or not – ways of thinking from many different disciplines and centuries – the result being a rather cacophonous babble of different voices.
He said that he didn’t want to try and summarise his entire book in a short time because to do so would be glib and that all thinkers were distorted in the way people interpreted them. (He also said that he really couldn’t understand why people want to meet authors, given that books are so different from talks. If this talk was a book, he explained, then he might take a day to write a sentence. And that day which led to the single sentence might have been preceded by ten days of research whereby the author would have read other authors who had written on the subject, none of whom agreed with one another!)
He explained why, from his point of view, the search for happiness was not an especially fruitful one since, even if we found personal fulfilment and satisfaction – there were surely too many appalling things going on in the world for anyone to declare themselves happy. Instead, he said, what he found interesting was the pursuit of a meaningful life – and that meant a life characterised by empathy and understanding, aimed ultimately at making the human lot an improved one. ‘Truth is beautiful’, he said, going on to say that he would rather be insulted to his face (if the insult was motivated by truthfulness rather than mere unkindness!) than be told something soothing but without sincerity.
Then we went into the discussion part of the evening and ultimately we ended up in pairs for our ‘conversational supper’. We were provided with menus outlining questions to ponder and discuss, and these included such ones as ‘How have your background and experience limited or favoured you?’, ‘Which parts of your life have been a waste of time?’, ‘How have your opinions and behaviour changed on the way the two sexes treat one another?’ and ‘What have you learned about the different varieties of love in the course of your life?’ All in all, there were twenty such questions from which to choose.
It might sound like a terrifying ordeal, but actually, the way it had been introduced – with gentleness and lucid explanation of what we were being encouraged to do – lent it a much calmer and unintimidating ambience than might otherwise have been the case, and it is true to say that the entire room of people entered into the exercise with great diligence. I was paired with a woman called Laura, we had never met before, but we both experienced a sincere and meaningful exchange of thoughts and views. We did not tread into areas that we felt uncomfortable about, but equally we traversed challenging terrain and we took seriously the process that Zeldin had suggested, namely that the person who chose the question should answer first to demonstrate that they were willing to answer it truthfully, then the other partner should answer the question, then the answers should be discussed further, and we should end by discussing how the conclusions we had reached would benefit wider humanity (people gasped with an understandable sense of near-overwhelmedness when he said this bit!)
Towards the end of the evening, Laura leant close to me (she knew I worked for Blackwell’s) and said ‘I don’t know how influential you are, but please make it so that Blackwell’s organises more evenings like this!’ The expressions and body language of around sixty other people in the room suggested that they would echo this feeling.
Then Zeldin gave a brief conclusion to the evening, took a few questions and ended with a book-signing and perhaps the chance to ask one or two questions more quietly while getting your book signed.
Empathy Week, of which this was the final event, seems to have been a thoroughly worthwhile experience. Many people would agree that there is far too little compassion, kindness and understanding in this world and that a good and humble starting point to redress that is simply to get to know better the people around us. By extension of that, how well do we really understand people from radically different cultures, or geographical locations, or experiences?
Imagine if, en masse, all of us earthlings cultivated our abilities to empathise further than they currently extend. If that immense pang of love we may sometimes feel for a loved one or a close friend was extended to fellow humans generally, would that not be a worthy achievement for twenty-first century humankind?