Literature and Empathy

Last week’s post was about my experience writing physical intimacy between women, the reaction to my writing when I shared it, and the difficulty of writing away from my heteronormative male libido. I wrote about working hard to back my piece away from dude fantasy land and that I wasn’t totally successful in the effort. Still, progress was made.

One of the very interesting things that happened as I worked on it, read it, worked it, read it, and worked it some more, is that physical intimacy between women shifted towards physical intimacy between human beings. It started to seem natural that women could engage in a profound and satisfying physical and emotional relationship and that I could identify with that empathically. I started to be less the voyeur, and more a compassionate witness.

When I put my piece out into the public, I believed it was plausible, respectful, and well written, but, it felt risky. I was conscious of tackling subject material beyond my direct experience, and acutely aware of the male sexual voyeur perspective it was easy to fall into. I worried about grossly misunderstanding what an intimate physical relationship between two women would feel like to those women. My worst-case scenario was that I was so wrong and disrespectful that a woman would feel compelled to walk up to me and tell me how screwed up I was. Thankfully, this didn’t happen. Instead, the silence was deafening. I suppose that was good news. I was not so egregiously out of line that a woman felt the urgent need to set me straight. But it also did nothing to refine my understanding of my subject matter.

Finally, a virtual acquaintance on one of my social networks, a woman, read it and offered a helpful critique. She told me I hadn’t entirely escaped the male ogling gaze, gave a few examples of where I had not done so, and urged a vocabulary shift. Who knew that “fondle” was loaded with male, heterosexual-lizard-brain, sensibility? When I related this particular insight to my wife, she instantly said she hated the word. I never knew. I was more deeply stuck in the culture of male heterosexuality than I had imagined.

I’ve begun to think of my social media acquaintance as a spirit guide, sent to lead me through the landscape of inter-feminine love and sexuality. She suggested I read LGBTQ+ romance novels and recommended I start with One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston. I immediately purchased it for my Kindle and started reading. It’s wonderfully imaginative and well written. I’ve blazed through half of it already. I just finished the intense and beautiful climactic sex scene. I was able to stay in the place of compassionate witness as I read. My education is accelerating.

This leads me to thoughts about the profound importance of literature in developing empathy. We spend our lifetimes steeping in cultural cosmologies1 that become gated communities of belief where anything outside the gates is foreign, even dangerous. Some of us have expansive cultural cosmologies with highly permeable membranes around them. Some of us have tightly limiting cosmologies with hard exoskeleton membranes and little permeability. The majority of us are somewhere between. Literature is often the way hard, permeable exoskeletons are avoided or softened.

To understand what it feels like to be in someone else’s shoes, read accounts of it by talented authors who’ve had that experience or have done the work it takes to write an honest and empathetic portrayal of it. And write about it yourself. Nothing lets you walk a mile in another’s shoes quite the way imagining and writing about it does.

Which brings me to the current far-right efforts to ban books that have anything to do with rendering a cultural cosmology other than one based on a cisgender, white patriarchal, christian experience. And, the more liberal among us should not get smug. While the present book banning efforts may be largely from the far right, it is not unknown on the left side of the equation. Huckleberry Finn has been the target of banning efforts throughout its history and is presently a banning target of culture warriors from the left.

Having access to literature that helps us occupy the space of alien-to-us ways of being is of profound importance to the development of tolerance and understanding. If I were teaching creative writing to young people, I would start at an early age and have them write age-appropriate pieces where they are asked to imagine life in another person’s or creature’s shoes.

Humanity is a beautiful mosaic. As long as another’s way of being in the world doesn’t cause physical or psychological damage to those around them, all ways of being should be tolerated. We should aim to educate as broadly as possible in the variety of ways one can be. Children in particular, at appropriate ages, with appropriate guidance, should be allowed and encouraged to inhabit a multitude of ways of being, as they work out what their way of being will be.

  1. I owe this concept of cultural cosmology to Ryhd Wildermuth’s recent substack post, Political Theology↩︎

26 Weeks of Writing

A day or two after the new year began, I wrote and published my reflections on the past year and a set of aspirations for the new year. One of those aspirations was to write more, short and long form. It is 26 weeks into the year and I have exceeded my aspirations for writing and publishing. I have published micro posts daily, and each week, at least one long form essay. The total count of long form posts for the past six months is 28. What did I write about? The following is a list of my posts by category with brief description/summaries.

Personal Reflection

Many things have arisen that have given me cause for personal reflection. Writing is how I work out strong and confused emotions. Writing is how I am learning to understand myself and my relationship to the world around me.

Reflections for 2022, Aspirations for 2023: The post that got the ball rolling.

Never Put Off Till Tomorrow: About the death of my uncle before I could visit.

About The Handmaid’s Tale: My complex feelings about The Handmaid’s Tale.

My True Potential: About being a house husband and homemaker.

Smaller is Beautiful: About an argument with my wife which led to an epiphany.

About My 50th High School Reunion: My complicated feelings around my 50th reunion. Don’t we all have them?

It’s a simple thing, but: When my local theater decided it’s easier to post a link to a website than change the movies on the marquee weekly.


With the appearance of ChatGPT at the end of 2022, a lot of attention has been drawn to artificial intelligence, what I call, alternative intelligence. I wrote many times about ChatGPT, and reworked a talk I gave on AI in 2009 into a five-part post.

Nick Cave Vs. ChatGPT: The claim that ChatGPT can’t make art because it doesn’t feel or have the experience of aspiration and disappointment. I argue that whether it feels or has experience is irrelevant. All it needs to be able to do is make us feel.

What Is ChatGPT For?: Here I speculate that ChatGPT signals the emergence of a higher complexity intelligence built in part on human intelligence.

Another Post About AI: I make and address each of the following statements:

  • AI is here to stay.
  • AI is the continued evolution of intelligence on the planet.
  • AI is already good at, and will get even better at, getting us to engage with it.
  • There will certainly be good that comes of AI.
  • There will certainly be bad that comes of AI.
  • We don’t control the evolution of AI, and never will.
  • We can be happy, creative, and productive, in spite of AI.

Can AI Make Art?: In which I argue that great art can and will be made with AI.

And, my five part series on A(alternative)I(intelligence)

What Intelligent Life Is Made Of: Part 1

What Intelligent Life Is Made Of: Part 2

What Intelligent Life Is Made Of: Part 3

What Intelligent Life Is Made Of: Part 4

What Intelligent Life Is Made Of: Postscript

Books, Reading

I have read a number of books this year that have had a substantial impact on my thinking. These are the posts that are directly about, or inspired by, books I read.

“Make the work, something will come of it.”: About gift economies. Inspired by:

  • Sacred Economics, Charles Eisenstein
  • The Gift, Lewis Hyde
  • Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer
  • Buddhist Economics, E. F. Schumacher (an essay from the book, Small Is Beautiful)

Wo/man, The Two Legged Paradox: A look at the “survival of the fittest” and its efficacy as an organizing principle for society.

  • The Log from the Sea of Cortez, John Steinbeck

Spirit-Of-Gift: A further look at the gift economies.

  • The Gift, Lewis Hyde

Finding The Mother Community: On the atomization of society and how a strong and resilient society can be built.

  • Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest, Suzanne Simard

How Much Does Happiness Cost?: On the surprisingly little money it takes for people to be happy. It ain’t all about the money.

  • Reclaiming the Sacred, Jeff Golden

And then I read.: About capitalism and its discontents.

  • Reclaiming the Sacred, Jeff Golden
  • Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer
  • Sacred Economics, Charles Eisenstein
  • The Gift, Lewis Hyde

Review of Reclaiming the Sacred, by Jeff Golden: A review of the book.


I write fiction from time to time. Short stories so far, though I am currently working on something that might turn out to be novella length. Look for more in this space in the coming months.

The Photograph: A short story I wrote when asked to be part of a story writing and reading event. Each participant was given a photograph, two authors for each photograph, and asked to write a short story that could be read in 5 minutes.

Something Is Afoot: A post about trends I am perceiving. Is there some big thing happening right now? I think so, but what it is, isn’t clear.

Spirituality, Humanism

A Humanist Concept of Sacred: This post was derived from a talk I gave at the New York Society for Ethical Culture. I decided to revisit it when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and because of the deeply divided nation I live in. I believe that it is important to have a concept of the sacred, of setting things apart from violation. The question is, where does the sacred emanate from if there is no God, which is the position I take.

Democracy and Patriarchy

“Rage, Rage Against the Dying of the Light”: About a patriarchy loosing its grip on power and the violent backlash that has resulted.

Individual vs. The Whole

In Praise of the Choir: We live in a society that idolizes the child prodigy and worships the exceptional individual. We are told from the time we are small children that we can be anything we want to be, and that we, too, are exceptional. This piece is about the choir, the power and beauty of it, and how it’s enough to be a member of it, even honorable.

I am excited to see what the next six months of writing will tackle. I feel I am hitting my stride. I have really accomplished something. Thanks for reading.