There’s a John Updike short story, Trust Me, where, in passing, the narrator notes:
Another’s pain is not our own. Religion, he supposed, seeks to close that gap, but each generation’s torturers kept it open. Without it, compassion would crush us; the space of indifference is where we breathe.
I thought about the paradox raised by this a lot during the writing of my novel Love Sex & Other Foreign Policy Goals. Not enough compassion and we’re not fully human, too much and we can be crushed, immobilised by pity.
Like a lot of paradoxes it feels like a liberal one. Like freedom, we have to have the compassion. But like freedom, it gives us nothing. Freedom does nothing but allow everything else in. Compassion in itself, from miles away, is nothing. It doesn’t sustain the victims or move Great Powers.
We must care. But if we care too much, we will go crazy, or boring. I suppose this has been true since the 19th century when reporting of distant battles and foreign atrocities first started to arrive with the marmalade on our breakfast table; when Gladstone tried to galvanise the nation into action over the Bulgarian Horrors. The only difference through the intervening years has been the increase in volume. Now, on Twitter, if you only followed horror and mayhem, you’d never get to anything else – no jokes, or football transfer speculation, or food recipes.
So, how are you supposed to make a joke, or a meal, when you know about all the horror in the world? How wide should that space of indifference be that we give ourselves to breathe? That’s one of the questions that motivates the characters in my book. If you know the answer – please feel free to forward.
Jesse Armstrong is one of the UK’s foremost comedy writers. Alongside Sam Bain, he has written eight series of the BAFTA Award-winning Peep Show, as well as Fresh Meat, Bad Sugar and, with Chris Morris, Four Lions. Jesse also co-wrote The Thick of It and the Oscar-nominated In the Loop, and wrote the Entire History of You for Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror.
His first novel, Love Sex & Other Foreign Policy Goals, was published in April 2015.