What is the connection between an apparently motiveless man going on a shooting rampage in Las Vegas, and a prime minister having a choking fit? Not much, you might think. But bear with me.
Listening to the comments on Theresa May’s party conference speech, and reading the press the next day, I couldn’t help feeling appalled by the sheer lack of compassion being shown to her. This has nothing to do with politics: I am not talking about the content of her speech. I am talking about the fact that she found herself handicapped by a physical condition and that this sparked a feeding frenzy.
It is possible that she was suffering from a throat or lung virus: she is reputed to be susceptible on this front. It is also possible that the sheer tension of expectation and conflict surrounding her ‘performance’ on the platform affected her somatically. Or perhaps both. In his book The Body Keeps the Score, the eminent Boston psychiatrist Bessel Van der Kolk describes how the neurobiological pathways of mental stress manifest themselves in physical ways, often in repeating patterns. The twenty years of research in his field originated with post-traumatic stress, but he insists it has relevance across the whole area of human affectivity.
However intelligent a person, however much self-control they have, if you put them in a corner for long enough their body will give out, even if their mind doesn’t. The response should be empathy and respect, rather than hyena-like schadenfreude. I wish I could say that Christians don’t behave like this. But we do. As long ago as the fourth century, St Gregory Nazianzen was addressing the scandal of our own inability to emulate the profound compassion of Christ: “Where then does duty lie for us, the disciples of Christ, the mild and merciful, who did so much for us?” Mercy is not an optional heresy invented by Pope Francis.
You might think that this treatment of the prime minister can hardly be compared to the actions of a psychopath who spends weeks planning a cold-blooded cull of human life. But they are on the same spectrum. Human cruelty is a dangerous force. Extreme violence is often called ‘irrational’, an ‘aberration’ among supposedly rational creatures. But I am pretty sure Stephen Paddock was thinking clearly while he was upgrading his rifles to automatic weapons. Indeed he has been described as ‘upbeat and happy’ as he bought those weapons. And the political pundits were definitely using their grey matter as they opened the oubliette beneath a woman struggling to do her duty against mounting odds. What they were not using was their humanity.
People who call for more empathy across human society are not snowflakes. They are making a rational observation, the power of which only grows as our demagoguery and savagery increases. To care about others is a tougher proposition, requiring much more self-discipline, than tearing or mowing them down.
Leonie Caldecott is the UK/Eire editor of Magnificat, and of the online journal Humanum (humanumreview.com)