The young man emptied the last sip of his glass. His host took the tumbler away, refilled it with fresh ice and Bourbon and put it back on the table in front of his guest.
“Now as I said, my dear Burke, this is of course only the beginning. Forgetting incidents that don’t affect us very much is an easy task. We forget things every day, even if they are – objectively speaking – gruesome and horrifying. We read things on the paper every morning: people are murdered in terrorist attacks, children are starving, women are mutilated. All terrible terrible things, wouldn’t you agree? And yet we manage to put down the paper, get up to get another cup of coffee and continue on with our daily business without spending so much as one thought about female genital mutilation. And why is that, Burke?”
“I don’t know, Norton, I really don’t. I have been wondering myself sometimes, feeling a sense of guilt that I don’t feel more disturbed when reading these things. I would guess it is some kind of innate protective mechanism. Too much empathy would kill us, leave us futile like a solar penal in the midst of the arctic winter. I think our brains are trained to be selective in the intake of information, as well as in the processing of it. Biologically, or rather evolutionary, it’s a survival mechanism. We cannot pay attention to all things equally, we have to select, and ascribe more importance to some things than to others.”
“Exactly, Norton, exactly! So there is no shame in enjoying a happy life while other more unfortunate people than us suffer agony. Most people, out of moral obligation, would claim it is breaking their heart to see children die of AIDS, or to read about women having their faces burned off with acid. The truth is, though, Burke, that we understand on an intellectual level that these things are horrifying, and it might even give us a short physical discomfort the very moment we read or hear about it. But we usually only have to wait until we are distracted by something else more mundane, and the sentiment is gone and forgotten. It is, as you say, a protective mechanism. Our brains are not inexhaustible; its capacity is, in fact, quite limited.”
The younger man silently nodded and took another sip of his Bourbon, savoured the taste before he slowly swallowed the cold drink.
“Now, we have already established that there is a clear connection between our intellect and physical discomfort. Anticipation creates pain, memory conserves pain, and forgetting ceases pain. You have experienced this yourself when pulling out your hair. I would say, however, that from a biological point of view the physical pain we typically experience when pulling out a single hair from our head is rather small in the first place. Hence forgetting and overcoming does not cause us major difficulties. It is a kind of pain that does not greatly affect us, even if we have not trained ourselves in the art of forgetting. I think it is fair to say that we experience the same level of pain when we pull out a hair as when we read about another child starving in a far away country. Looking at this pile of hair on the table I would say you experienced just as much discomfort as if you had heard about fifty times that a child, or several children, died – the number of casualties strangely enough doesn’t influence our level of sympathy. Shocking, isn’t it, Burke?”
“I, I don’t know, Norton. I feel cannot agree with you on this one. Comparing dying children to loss of hair? That just doesn’t seem right!”
“But Burke, my friend, we are not talking about hair loss here! This is not about a man’s hurt vanity because he is going bald! This is merely about the little sting we experience when pulling one out!”
“But what, Burke? What is it? Is this your moral conscience speaking? Please answer me frankly: Do you lie awake at night because you cannot stand the pain you feel when you read about starving children?”
“Do you spend the entire day after reading the newspaper thinking about the agony other people feel that have lost their beloved ones in a bomb attack?”
“Do you feel shocked when you read these things on the paper?”
“Of course I do! Everyone does!”
“But how long does this moment of shock last, Burke, how long? Tell me? Until you move on to the sports section?”
“I don’t read the sports section!”
“That’s not the point here, dear Burke. Which part of the paper do you usually read after the world news?”
The young man swallowed. He looked down, took up his glass and emptied it. He cleared his throat and swallowed again. “Humour,” he whispered.
“What’s that?” enquired the host.
“Humour! I said humour!”
“Ha, Burke, you are even better a candidate than I could have hoped for! This is brilliant!”
“You defeated me yet again, Norton. I must say, the mirror you are holding up against my face reflects a very dark image. I am not sure I like this.”
“Oh, but Burke, please do not feel defeated! I am not trying to win here, I am only trying to make you understand! You are a fine specimen of a man. You are honest, unlike most people. And you are not fighting the truth about what we, as humans, are made of. And the good news is, my friend, that we can use our brain’s selective capacity and inability to connect horror we understand on an intellectual level to a physical level to our own advantage. Our brain has a selective mechanism, which seems to be out of our control. I say, we can bring it into our control. There are things, small pains, that don’t affect us very much – be it the pain we experience when pulling out a hair or when we read about starving children. Our brain automatically makes a selection here; it doesn’t pay too much attention to it and quickly moves on to other things that appear more relevant to our survival – be it thinking about where best to get food for dinner or reading the humour section in the newspaper to brighten up our day,” he smirked, and saluted to his guest. “But then, of course,” he continued, “there are more serious pains that are not so easily ignored. And this is where our real work begins, my friend. Our world has become distorted, and our evolutionarily carved mechanisms do not work anymore. Our unnatural way of living has confused our natural capacity to select. This is why people are going mad. They do not know on what to focus, so they are holding on to things – memories, emotions, experiences – that do them harm rather than help them survive. So, my dear friend, are you ready to take the next step in our experiment?”
The young man nodded contemplatively. “I am, Norton, yes, I think I am. Nothing has changed after all; it is still about the survival of the fittest. And all we want is to survive, isn’t it so, Norton?”
“So it is indeed,” he said and raised his glass to a toast.