One of the most surprising classes I took at UW-Madison was a seminar led by Richard Avramenko based on the theories of Continental philosopher Martin Heidegger. I begrudgingly registered for the course to fill the Political Theory requirement for my PoliSci major, something I’d been putting off as long as possible. When my professor emailed the class prior to the start of the course announcing that Heidegger was a prominent member of the Nazi party in Germany during WWII, it goes without saying, I was apprehensive.
What I learned about Heidegger’s theories, however, profoundly impacted my worldview. Nazi affiliations aside, he had a remarkably human way of interpreting life and people. Unlike his analytic predecessors, Heidegger believed that the “how” of who we are was much more important than the “what.” The differences between the what and the how are subtle and complex, but it basically comes down to this… does it matter what something is if you have no use for it?
Essentially, our relationships with objects and with other beings are what determine how they are to us. I only care about a table in the sense that it holds up my books; the fact that it’s a solid wood object is of secondary or lesser importance to me. Similarly with other people, I have little care–or solicitude, in Heidegger speak–for those people I have never met or have nothing in common with, therefore a universal understanding of what a human being is is largely irrelevant to me.
To explain solicitude, Avramenko gave us the following scenario… You go to a movie with your friend, and there are only two seats left in the theater in opposite corners. You and your friend sit in the two seats, far away from each other. You’re now sitting next to someone else that you don’t know, but you’re not really with them. You’re still with your friend, despite the fact that you can’t talk to them or touch them.
That’s solicitude, a level of connectivity that is independent of physical space and time. It’s literally what you mean when you say, “I feel for you.” It’s a combination of empathy, concern, and love. But where does it come from? Why do we feel solicitude for some and not others? The basic answer is “relationships.” We feel solicitude for those people that we have relationships with.
I’ve been meditating a lot on this idea since I arrived in Chicago. It has numerous implications for the work in which I now find myself, particularly in the context of community. It’s hard to say what this word really means in the modern world. I’m sure we can all envision “days of yore” when people not only came together for social functions, but also relied on each other, to some degree, for survival. Parents kept watch over each other’s children, borrowed supplies when no sugar was to be found, and felt some sort of collective accountability for keeping each other safe and well.
This used to be a necessity, before modern conveniences made us all more independent. Then I think it became something perpetuated out of nostalgia (picture your stereotypical Republican candidate talking about “American/community values”). But these days, for the most part, I think we keep to ourselves. Our family units are smaller and our neighborhoods are often riddled with suspicion and fear. Because we no longer need each other, we alienate each other.
(Keep in mind that, throughout this post, I am making sweeping generalizations based on my own observations and subsequent reactions)
I think this phenomenon is potentially catasprophic. It results in a kind of profound loneliness, in that the purpose of our being–to feel solicitude for others–is somehow slipping away (this is the reason for the title of this post, the inspiration from a Wilco song of the same name). This profound loneliness and separation from our essential purpose as beings causes us to feel empty and lost, prompting a number of destructive reactions. One, we have a sort of existential crisis, in which–because we have lost meaning or purpose in life–we become nihilistic in an anywhere from a listless to violent fashion.
**Side note: I wrote about this phenomenon for my Heidegger term paper within the context of Facebook. This incredible technological tool has made us more interconnected than ever, yet we’ve never felt more lonely. In fact, not long after I finished, The Atlantic ran a remarkably similar piece, minus all my academic Heidegger mumbo jumbo.
Upon arriving in Chicago, I repeatedly asked myself, why all the violence? Dozens of people get shot in Chicago each weekend; a few of them have been kids in the schools of my colleagues. It all seems so senseless, and why do people have to die? I think the answer is in this profound feeling of loneliness, and it’s not just in violent neighborhoods, it’s in all of us. Some of us just learn to bury it rather than last out against it.
If you’re a kid who has consistently been treated like a cog in a machine, such that either you’ll never amount to anything or that your only value is in a network of violence, you start to lose your essential purpose in relating to the being in all other humans. A lot of the kids we teach have never been told that they’re smart before, or that they have any hope of getting to college and a different life.
All of a sudden, you’re grasping for any measure of importance you can find, and usually that looks like responding aggressively to small triggers. A bump in the hallway could be enough to ignite your fundamental instinct to be respected as a human being. So you throw a punch to make yourself noticed, because you fear, at the core of your soul, that you’re actually insignificant.
Isolation, abandonment, emptiness. These are the leftovers when a community fails to build solicitude.
So how do we combat this catastrophe?
Teach for America’s–or just teaching in general–is investment. As a teacher, you invest in each and every student, show them that at least one person respects their human dignity and expects them to fulfill their purpose. You have to go out of your way to create a classroom and school community that not only builds solicitude between student and teacher, but forces students to realize that one’s singular failure has collective ripples.
I think this theoretical framework could have really interesting implications where the work that Kurt is currently engaged in is concerned. The idea of neighborhood empowerment as facilitated by the government is a solid way to formally build and incentivize solicitude. I’m excited to see more of what Kurt has to say about this work.
Realistically, this is a lesson that we could all use a healthy dose of. In the world that I came from, people might not have started fights, but they certainly felt the negative effects of loneliness. We all need to work harder to recognize, capitalize, and initiate solicitude. If a day arrives where no single person needs the community of another to physically exist, we have truly lost sight of our essential purpose. There is no more how, there is no more human being.