Feast: True Love in and out of the Kitchen by Hannah Howard Review

This book belongs to that dying coming-of-age-in-NYC-uber-honest-personal-essay-featuring-tampons-vomit-and-DMCs genre.

It’s also sweet and embarrassingly relatable for millennials.

The best things about this book is Hannah’s startling honestly. Not even so much when it comes to her devastating eating disorder, but how she feels about men and work. You kind of wonder if some of it was made up to protect the identities of the people involved. It’s preciously revelatory and confessional. You can feel the anguish.

It’s certainly readable, but I cannot honestly say I am a fan of the style. Some of it is beautifully descriptive. Parts are repetitive. Everything shines like the moon. Hannah is preoccupied with the sensations in her toes. 

The descriptions of food can be wonderful, but at times it seems like she ran out of paper and had to write her shopping list in her personal diary.

Other times, the detail seems unnecessary. For example, she cooks Irish oats. I effin love Irish oats. But frankly, they are not that different to good oats from anywhere else in the world. Why mention that they are Irish? To show your level of pickiness? Sophistication? But surely, oats are just oats – and anyone who cares about food enough to care that the oats are Irish knows that. Hannah isn’t pretentious or arrogant! (Of course, the reader is assured at this point that they know her like she is her best friend.) Maybe, it is just the glaringly obvious explanation: food is her tragic obsession and there is no rhyme or reason to it.

There are also too many Americanisms consumerinisms. She talks about writing things in Sharpie. Dude, why can’t you just say marker?

The main theme of the book, as I see it, is Hannah’s struggle to find people who will love her and accept her. She wants to find a “home”, “her people” and feel like she belongs. Despite severe anorexia, she even feels at home when the uberthin hostesses of an superposh New York restaurant side with her in a mean girls exchange. That’s all it took: knowing she wasn’t alone. Her fear of weight gain summed up in one line: “I will be unfuckable, or even worse : unlikable, unacceptable, unlovable.”

There is probably one most telling bit in the whole book. Hannah talks about the advice that works: “Get out of yourself and your own head. Call someone else. Ask how they are doing. Ask about their day. Listen. Don’t talk about you. That advice. I’ve heard it before from Aaron and it is exactly what I don’t want to hear. It works nearly every time.”

What is it? Well, the same way that steroids get rid of inflammation, this exercise gets rid of self-obsession. A crude diagnosis, but it’s there.

The ending is a little but too much of an amalgam of post card philosophy. I don’t think she’s not honest or what she says is wrong, but it’s not nearly as refreshing and gripping as the rest of the book. Then again, this also happened to War and Peace, so I don’t judge 😉

My highlights below.

On what food does for an addict

Life is big and scary. Food is constant, safe, dependable. Food blots everything out and calms everything down, draws the shades and tucks me in. Cozy. Miserable. Numb.

Sure, food is my answer to anxiety, sadness, boredom, anger, but also to excitement, possibility, and joy.

And just like starving is the answer, bingeing is the answer.

Often, postbinge, I feel a sweet relief, a stillness.

It is an instant cure to whatever ails me, save the paltry price of the morning after — waking up and needing to barf and not being able to, vowing to eat nothing for a day, a week; the self-imposed, relentless suffering.

My trusty companion has let me down. All that food has done nothing to quiet my demons. I cannot escape myself.

I am not a cool girl. I always have friends, wonderful friends, and yet my identity as an outsider feels fixed from as far back as I can remember.

But most importantly, I am not thin enough. This sums it all up. This is my curse, my refrain, true as my name.

The mirror is enemy number one.

After cosmetic surgery

When I go back to school for senior year, nobody notices. If they do, they are silent. I feel the devastation in my chest, my bones, their marrow. I am still me.

On loneliness and lack of self-esteem

College means everything. If my body is one measure of my self -worth, college is the other.

I read. No matter how lonely I feel, how much an outsider,how fat, I am welcome in the world of words, stories, poems. They hold my hand. They show me that there are more ways to think and feel than I may fathom.

In my fantasy, something remarkable happens at college. I am not an outsider. I belong.

I am going to be a whole new Hannah. Like myself, but immensely better. Skinnier, of course. Skinnier is everything. Skinniness is next to godliness.

The summer holidays after getting into the college of her dreams:

My new life is full of possibility but I am stuck inside myself. My stomach feels round and big as the moon. I have big plans for my summer. I want to do unambitious things like make eight bucks an hour scooping ice cream, read a lot of trashy mags, and sleep. It sounds wild, an adventure. Also, I will diet.

It doesn’t feel like enough, not even close, but hunger seems a small price to pay for liking myself, for not dreaming of carving away the flesh below my belly button, the sides of my butt.

On starving herself

So much better than being cool, I feel powerful. My skin and bones are different, electric.

My stomach gurgles, struggling against its own emptiness, and I am proud.

I go long stretches of days with only Pink Lady apples, coffees with skim milk and Splenda, liters of diet soda and seltzer water. A frozen yogurt, sometimes.

My butt hurts when I sit, and sometimes my knees buckle under the weight of my body, like it’s heavier in its thinness.
I think about the pancetta sandwich he cooked me, the cruel extravagance of the buttery croissant.
I flip through the pages, deliberate over what I won’t hate myself worse in the morning for ordering.

On men

It is the best drug — wanting him, him wanting me. The room spins.

He peers over, and we make eye contact… “ You’re very beautiful, like a model. ” His eyes are wider than they should be, all pupils, like he’s taken an opiate. His gaze feels like a scratch on my skin, unbearable… He doesn’t say anything this time, his eyes are hard on me. I think, This is because of my diet. Fifteen pounds ago, this would never have happened. Is this what people want? Why?

“Your face is a ten, but your body is a six,” he says, unprompted. “ I’m only grading you harshly because you have such potential. You could be a ten, even, if you lost some weight, got in great shape.” I feel as if my skin has been peeled from me. And yet, I agree.

“Do you see the way men look at you?” Corey asks. “ ike they’re hungry?”

I still hate the roundness of my belly, pull on the flesh around my hips and fantasise about its evisceration. But I have felt immense pleasure and given the same. The power of that straightens my spine.

Because I don’t believe I am likable, even for a second, attention from men surprises me, every time.

On hearing that her boyfriend is addicted to coke and alcohol:

I don’t think, Hannah, yikes, walk away. I think, Thank god. I am not alone. He gets it… He drinks the way I eat—to fill something unfillable.

I think about years passing with him, decades. The thought makes me want to puke.

[There is a lot on sexism. There is also a rape.]

On wanting to be thin

I wonder how miraculous my life would be in her body.

“ You know,” she says, “ being skinny is such a strange part of beauty. It’s not the most important part. It’s just the only part you can control. ”

“The point is to be fuckable. ”

I fantasize about butchering myself the way the cooks I work with so beautifully break down a side of beef, carving away the excess until I’m okay.

I want to be badass and free from the patriarchy and skinny.

No one wants me to join Ari on TV because of the roundness of my belly, I am sure. It doesn’t matter, the other stuff.

On finally being thin

I think, This is what I wanted. I’m skinny and eighteen and about to go out with a Michelin – starred, kind – of celebrity chef. I wonder why I’m not elated.

“ You’re beautiful, ” he tells me. The claim sounds ridiculous, cruel.

I don’t particularly want him, but being wanted makes up for it.

My chest hurts with each inhale, the empty ache of not – enoughness.
..deep inside my internal organs, there are millions of pounds of longing. This is not the way I thought skinniness would feel.
The Atlantic rushes up to my ankles, the beach smells of wind and sardines. My loneliness feels as wide as its endless expanse.
I want to eat the pastéis de nata and I don’t want to eat the pastéis de nata. I am trapped. Either way, I will let myself down.
I remember Corey saying “ Just lose some weight, then you can go back to loving food.” Am I there yet? That place does not exist. I will never arrive.

On work

Nobody goes home sick at The Piche. It’s the restaurant code of honor.

I close the restaurant, stumble home drunk on exhaustion at 2 AM, and get up at 5 AM to open the restaurant the next day. “ It builds character, ” they tell the three management trainees.

At first, I love the profundity of my exhaustion when I come home, the satisfaction of the ache in the arches of my feet, my lower back, proof I have worked.

The day ahead here feels like a prison.

I don’t stop talking about whether to quit or not to quit. I’m trying to decide. Both options fill me with hot dread. I feel resigned. I fear that if I stay, Josh’s prediction will come true.

My soul will be constricted and slicked down, like my hair, until, starved for breath, it deflates. Yet if I go, I will be a quitter, a failure at my first real grown-up job.

What she really wants from work:

It’s the creativity, the spirit, the heart.

The Corporate Steakhouse could never have been home. Walking out past the koi for the last time, I feel the vast freedom that comes from knowing this, from setting off to find the place that is.

On finding out that what she thought was her dream turned out to be quite different in real life:

Our vision. Our dream. The truth is, I don’t love it or even like it. I am simultaneously stressed and bored.

On her initial recovery from anorexia

Anorexia is the most fatal mental illness. Deadly. Before a heart stops, way before hospital visits, furry skin, even when the anorexia is merely an idea of itself, a taste of impending famine, it starts to obliterate things.

I cry in her office. I know I am getting fatter. What was the point of all this struggle? I gain a few pounds, and nobody says anything ever again to anyone’s mom ; nobody worries about me.

I am not better. If anything, I am worse. I still go as long as I can go without eating, until everything around me breaks into little dots and begins to lose its substance. And then I binge.

On her success in recovery

No longer a secret, the food very slowly loses its tight grip on me. The shame begins to dissipate.

“Your feelings won’t kill you,” Faith says as if reading my mind. “And they will pass. Promise.”
I once thought I was eternally fucked.
They tell me “a power greater than myself can restore me to sanity.” I say that I don’t understand what the fuck that means.

On wanting love

Surreally pretty. I catch myself staring: his sharp jaw, his cheekbones, his underwater eyes. That he likes me, loves me, seems unfathomable.

…our whole bodies are not just touching but without boundaries, his skin is my skin, his tattoo is my tattoo, and it is better than chocolate and cake and sex and success and all of the things that are good.

I notice that the people who love me do not love me more or less if I am thinner or heavier.

My eating disorder is all about me, me, me. A selfish beast. It tricks me into thinking that if I can shrink enough, I will be safe and loved and admired. But I am safe and loved and admired just as I am, no matter what size I wear, even if I have to tell myself this a million times over to half believe it.

Post-card philosophy

There is a Japanese art called kintsukuroi. Each time a piece of pottery cracks, it is lacquered back together with gold. All those golden threads make the piece what it is, extraordinary.
I like to think of my heart like that. That each time it breaks, it gets more valuable and beautiful with the mending. It is a collage of gold.

Insight

It makes me sad, how much of my own life I have missed, buried in the self-obsession of my eating disorder.
It’s not that I’ve emerged from my cocoon a butterfly. It’s not that I have escaped the taskmaster that lives in my brain and shouts and shouts an endless loop of fear, worry, shame. But I do know that the taskmaster’s voice speaks only some garbled, deeply skewed version of the truth, and that’s no truth at all.

“It’s only natural”

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. This is not intended as a substitute for the medical advice of physicians. The reader should regularly consult a physician in matters relating to his/her health and particularly with respect to any symptoms that may require diagnosis or medical attention.

A very handsome, fit and well-dressed young man came in to see me about a nagging, chronic gut problem. This is the sort of thing that medicine doesn’t really have an answer for and the referring family doctor knew this as did the said dashing young man. The reason for her referral was that he had had enough.

I took a very long history filled with exacerbations and remissions going back to when he was a teenager, alleviating and aggravating factors that the tormented young man never really managed to leverage.

All the same, he was ahead of the curve in his career. He travelled extensively, ran a half-marathon and even climbed Kilimanjaro.

We were nearly certain that his condition didn’t have an organic cause we could address, but given the one or two potential pointers for such a cause, the duration and extent of his distress, it was decided that the gentleman should have some specialist investigations. As a sort of an advance measure, we gently suggested that in all likelihood, the tests won’t find anything and if so, there won’t be much we could offer him besides a few tweaks of what has helped him in the past. At this point he covered his face with his hand, then made a tight fist whitening his knuckles, plunging visibly into anger and frustration – not so much at us, it seemed, but at the powerlessness of medicine and his ill fate.

There is no denying that this high-flying man suffered greatly with his imperfect bowel. I was left there wondering two things.

This man is so accomplished, able to climb mountains and run marathons, why does he so firmly believe that his condition is “debilitating”? I can only presume that he has a kind of equation in his head where his potential plus his condition equals his reality. I did wonder if his reality could have been far more impressive had it not been for these bouts of gastrointestinal torture. I have the suspicion that the thought occurred to him. Perhaps it occurred to him many times a day.

Furthermore, if he is determined to eradicate this unidentified fiend sabotaging his gut, why didn’t he do more of what worked and avoid the aggravating factors? It would seem a little maladaptive to refuse to negotiate with the affliction. Or did he write down all his shortfalls to the condition, thus allowing him to sustain a vision of unadulterated, perfect potential trapped by the wretched disease?

I then wondered if that is our perfectionist millennial nature that’s always chasing the latest maximising-optimising lifehack or is that the sort of irreducible self-selection that particular kind of young person to hospital regardless of their generation or culture.

The reason I wonder this is that only last week I was trying to convince a much older man to consider treatment for his chronic pain, but he insisted, “it’s only natural”. Then again, I don’t think it would ever occur to him to climb Kilimanjaro.

Special like everyone else

“You are unique and special, just like everyone else”…

is a semantic cop out.

If special is better, greater, or otherwise different from what is usual, it means that most everything is usual – and once in a blue moon, we get to see something special.

So, no, everyone isn’t special. (The semantics are very simple: the fact that one is special in the eyes of another doesn’t mean that they are special full stop.)

Unique – is a different matter. Every piece of sh*t is unique, but they’re not quite so special. (Gastroenterology, look away).

Perhaps, it’s a semantic cop out that was trying to right some even worse wrong in the 1960s, when it was said by Margaret Mead, but today it can only do harm.

While building a brighter future during the Khrushchev era, my mother’s generation was convinced that to indicate that you wish to be something greater, yourself, was practically a crime. No wonder, the likes of Ayn Rand were screaming for a different view.

Reading blogs written in the US today, I feel much more aspiration for individual greatness, whereas in this part of the world, “delusions of grandeur” are strongly discouraged.

I think it is damaging for people to think of themselves as being special. It’s the sort of attitude that has people craving accomplishment and its short term substitute, other people’s attention.

If one comes to terms with the fact that they are an ordinary human being, like everyone else, perhaps they won’t feel the void left by… normalcy. Imagine that.

Maybe they won’t reach for their phone every morning for the dopamine hit of someone’s attention on social media that reminds them that they are special. Or look in the mirror to remind themselves of how their perfect skin/abs/ass makes them special. Or look at a wall full of degrees and ribbons to reassert their specialness.

A desire for specialness is mostly about an external locus of control. I think every person swings in and out of that unhelpful state at times, but I went through a transient, painful time when it really hit me hard. Was it my parents/teachers/friends’ fault? Or maybe that’s just social media? Whatever it is, it’s not an excuse to remain this way, so it doesn’t matter a huge amount to me.

In a previous post, some people said that they used to affirm their students’ specialness to them using this mantra, “You are unique and special, just like everyone else”. I think it’s kind and well intentioned, but perhaps not very helpful today as it feeds into the inescapable narrative rather than correcting for it.

I don’t think any teachers of mine ever told me I was special, it never occurred to me that they should. In fact, it would be weird. I looked for self-actualisation in other, what seemed like real, meaningful ways. I feel that this was a good thing. I think my phase of search for specialness was down to the fact that I got into comparing myself to others beyond all context.

This is by no means asking anyone to regress to the mean, encourage mediocrity or prevent people from doing something special. I just don’t think that special things should be done for the sake of making the doer special. They should be done for a real, less narcissistic reason, which usually involves someone else or something bigger than oneself.

And of course, we can define those special as relating to the general population, or better, to the relevant reference group. What is your cut off for special? 5%? 1%? Less than 5% of the population blog, so are we all special? Hmm. You get the point.

Is this as close to a long read as I am gonna get these days, jeez… For what I didn’t manage to say, here is some Radiohead rather beautifully wallowing in the pain of trying to be special, oscillating between idealising and devaluing. 1993. Sounds about right, doesn’t it?

Don’t ask why?…

A reader kindly sent me this article.

I don’t agree with its analysis, but it has some interesting points about using what vs why can have a significantly different effect.

During my stint in psychiatry, I learnt perhaps the most helpful question: what makes you say that? Notably, not a why question even though it asks about the same thing.

I also remember a brilliant psychiatrist giving a patient advice. The patient had a personality disorder and started reading about them to understand why she has it. He told her that at that point reading that could make it worse – and that interventions such as mindfulness and therapy were superior.

As for my disagreement. The article suggests introspective people are unhappy. It assumes and, with a very simple experiment, shows that asking why causes people to be sad. I think that introspective people aren’t sad because they are introspective, but sad and poorly self-aware people turn to introspection. And Negative Capability is still a thing.

Why do women love cosmetic products and how I plan to find out

I.

Why do women wear make up? (1)

I asked my near 60 year old mother and she had no qualms: make up is ultimately to attract men. A bit of a thought crime in our modern days, isn’t it? The Last Psychiatrist wrote this gem on the subject:

When they say, “it’s a woman’s choice” what they mean is “it’s not a man’s choice, it is thoroughly stupid to wear make up just for men, the only acceptable reason is if you do it for yourself, if it makes you feel better about yourself.”

Hear, hear.

Everyone knows you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, now you’re saying the cover of the book influences how the book feels about itself? 

This got me thinking.

II.

Apart from when I am trying to get someone’s attention, I am the content way over form type of gal.

Like really. I take pleasure in the fact that I haven’t bought most anything I didn’t actually really want or need in the last 2 years or so. In the fact that there is no clutter on my bedside locker. If I do buy something, it’s either evidence-based or very well reviewed. And I am not stingy or spartan. I buy it if I want it and don’t mind if it’s pricey. I just don’t like useless things.

I’ve always laughed at the people who get this massage and that massage in their attempts to look younger and fitter  – in wonder – when the obvious thing to do is go to the gym and eat well. The people who rub coenzyme Q10 and hyaluronic acid into their skin when it’s so darn obvious that it will only sit on the surface.

I was always curious about the thought processes of those who are really into their image. I had the privilege of reading an opinion piece from a schoolgirl who loves fashion and wants to explain why it’s substantial. (4) To my mind, it was rather a circular argument: fashion for the sake of fashion. Maybe I will find another reason?

 

III.

I am not so sure why women wear make up. Because they were told that they should, mostly? (2)

When I just joined the workforce, I wore a lot of make up (by my standards). I wanted to fit in with other girls, who I knew would invariably be wearing make up. It signals a number of things: a desire to be liked, a desire to fit into the female tribe – and a certain social class.

I also think that I am more liked when wearing make up. Perhaps the relationship is actually the inverse: on days I am particularly interested in approval, I wear make up and look for people to like me. I don’t really know. I guess make up is a particularly effective counterweight to the things that make me appear more serious than I am (being Russian and just a little nerdy).

IV.

Then I thought: content and form aren’t actually separate. The tech innovators of the last 20 years made a lot of money out of this less than obvious idea. They call form design and it works for them.

So if form is image and content is character, by working on one’s image, does one change their character?

If so, could it be for the worse? Are the people who look invariably perfect always shallow?

No, definitely not, in my experience.

What Dr. Last Psychiatrist really brings out, when he compares us to books with covers, is that we are social animals. What others think of us is hugely important and does influence what we think of ourselves. My question is how does our perception of ourselves change when we work on our image?

I thought long and hard about it. It’s unusual for women to wear make up at home, when there is no one around, at least in the same way as they do when they go outside. So it is about signalling to others. It is about others. That doesn’t mean that our perception of ourselves isn’t influenced by working on our image. Indeed, when we signal to others, we signal to ourselves, just a little bit.

What do we signal though? In my experience, there is something life-affirming about skincare. It makes me feel clean and creates a little isle of order in an otherwise chaotic world. It could also signal that we are not good enough to go out as we are, but that only happened to me when eyeliner wouldn’t go on right the first time or my skin was too dry for foundation and flaked.

If keeping a gun in the house made me feel good, it would be because at least on some level I felt I am safer with it. Similarly, make up enhances beauty – which, importantly, means higher status. Higher status leads to not only approval, but also safety. People are less likely to challenge those who look healthy, strong and of high status. This is where Azazel and deception come in. Make up builds up status and it’s a fake it till you make it operation that deceives us into believing that we’ve got it. Hence, more confidence.

V.

Does that mean women are so unbelievably needy and shallow that they pay 8 billion dollars a year to deceptively jack up their status in society?

Partly. But it’s a hobby too. It’s of entertainment value.

Like the guys who collect guns, women buy way more make up than they need because it’s a collection of toys. I wrote on a related topic previously and one of the comments was “I dress for myself… it’s about pride in appearance, not date bait” (Patti‘s blog). I completely believe her and, in my view, she is a hobbyist (I take the liberty of using dress and make up as very related concepts). It’s not that the concept of trying to impress specific people with your appearance is unfamiliar to me, but I genuinely don’t think it is the driver for most women, especially given that women continue to maintain their appearance once they are “spoken for”.

So there, most people who like make up are hobbyists.

For some reason this is a revelation to me. I guess I am a goal directed type, so I don’t really engage in too many hobbies. Reading is a hobby, but really it has the goal of understanding how people think. Blogging is a hobby, but really it serves as a chronicle and a place to bounce of likeminded individuals.

I think the closest thing I have to a hobby is food and drink – and the way I feel about a nice bottle of Chianti is similar to how I feel about a Dior eye cream.

VI.

Why am I worried about all this?

Well, I got it into my head that I want to learn about the concept of image this year, in a sort of New Year’s resolution.

Why? Because it seems that I am less concerned about it than a lot of people I hang around with.

This involves all kinds of 3-step routines and other rituals, so I became curious as to why millions of people bother when for me it is a conscious effort.

VII.

On a practical level, I buy make up and end up not using it because I get excruciatingly bored with the smell, so I gave into Facebook’s targeted advertising, for the first time in my conscious memory, and signed up for Birchbox (misspelt this as Bitchbox at first OMG ROFL.) My experience so far has been very positive and I plan to remain subscribed all year.

I shall also follow religious quotidien routines, exfoliate like my life depends on it and document any insights I gather on the way. I will update you no more frequently than once a month, so don’t unfollow just yet.

For the scientific method sticklers, here are my quasi-scientific details:

Null hypothesis: for a woman with no obvious image problems, there is no benefit in working on her image by using popular make up routines.

H1: for a woman with no obvious image problems, there is a benefit in working on her image by using popular make up routines.

Another question that’s on my mind is whether there is a qualitative difference to skincare vs make up proper in the value I would derive from it – all with a proud n=1.

why do women love cosmetic products

 

1. Azazel taught women the art of deception by ornamenting the body, dyeing the hair, and painting the face and the eyebrows, we are told. The art of deception. Interesting take.

2. It’s painful to watch how easy it is to convince someone of something and have the person believe that they independently arrived at that conclusion. And so when we are repeatedly told that we are worth it, we buy it. We buy the association between worth and looking great. Which, in a way, exists, to be fair.

3. “Нет на свете прекрасней одёжи, чем бронза мускулов и свежесть кожи” – В. Маяковский. This is from a poem and roughly translates as “There is nothing more beautiful in the world than the bronze of muscles and freshness of skin” by Vladimir Mayakovsky

Critical thinking or empathy?

Another thought experiment, inspired by a conversation with this blogger*.

If you had to live in a world where, compared to this one, people had

A. 50% more critical thinking and 50% less empathy

B. 50% more empathy and 50% less critical thinking,

which would you choose?

I would choose A. I sometimes find myself in situations where I can barely talk to people who others consider “aww, they’re so nice!”… Makes me feel like I am a cold b*tch, but it is because these people would choose to live in A.

In B, you side with the first person you meet.

Empathy, today, is being used as a word for kindness, but it isn’t. Kindness is an outcome. Neither is empathy conflict-aversion. Some have began talking about effective altruism as an upgraded version of empathy. Problem is that effective altruism is as close to empathy as effective evilness. Empathy is just the ability to understand the feelings of another person. It leads to a congruent emotional response.*

People assume that once one understand how someone feels, one will immediately want to side with them. That simply can’t be.

Spite is the ultimate proof of this: you need to understand your opponent very well in order to be spiteful. The most spiteful are the most empathetic, not the most psychopathic. Psychopathy isn’t necessarily evil and empathy isn’t necessarily good.

Who is the most caring person in your life? Have you ever seen them being spiteful to anyone you know?

A resident of B wants better outcomes for people they feel a kinship with. In other words, they feel spite for people they don’t feel close to – there is no other way in a zero sum short term scenario. They are the ultimate tribalists.

An empathetic person with deficient critical thinking can never agree to disagree.

Good critical thinking is not exactly a solution to a lack of empathy. It’s virtually impossible to become part of a tribe if you’re a deficient in empathy. Critical thinking also loses its potency if you can’t understand the other guy’s feelings. The decision making process is much slower in an unempathetic person. A lot of problems, in short.

Daniel Goleman talks about how members of the “dark triad” become great at social skills because they learn the stigmata of common emotions which is a legitimate way around it for unempathetic people.

It’s like hardcoding vs proper code. Empathy is hard code: quick, unconditional and generally correct.

I know some people who are almost 100% empathetic, but I’ve never met anyone who has 0% empathy, which makes me think empathy is an older, more important trait (quick decisions, Kahneman’s system one, etc)

Obviously, you would prefer to be optimally capable at empathy and critical thinking, but if you had to choose, which would you choose?

Some other places talking about empathy:

The Atlantic, ViceThe Guardian

* I made the point that non-religious people can be “religious” about certain things, e.g. politics, e.g. in WW2. He made the point that it’s down to a lack of critical thinking.

** George F.  brought up the point that the definition of empathy is not only the understanding but the sharing of a feeling. I think that’s a step too far if taken literally. There is some intermediary step where a person can appreciate the feelings of another and either decide to take them as their own or else to revel in their misfortune. We don’t just literally take other people’s feelings as our own, we just get a good insight into them. The most empathetic of people would be rather harmful if they literally shared the feelings of someone in need of help.

A little thought experiment

You’re about to open results of psychological tests comparing atheists and agnostics. What do you expect to find?

I wonder if agnostics are more conflict averse, better at abstract thinking and have a sense of humour.

Also, how do atheists who have children deal with the concept of Santa? Santa is a real world conspiracy theory – and possibly a much more pagan one than a Christian one. I imagine that there has to be a “herd immunity” for the concept of Santa to survive in creches and primary schools. Do religious parents arrive at the door step of atheists and be like, stop your child from spreading heresy!..

P.S. It is snowing in Ireland. I was in the Midlands today and it’s a Winter Wonderland.

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