This week is the first week that one of my kids fell in love with Sylvester and Tweety cartoons. I was never a huge fan of that cat and bird; previously, we had been sticking to Bugs Bunny. But now that Dar’s brother loves Sylvester and Tweety as much as Bugs, I suppose I can be proud that I have passed on the fandom of (generalized) classic Warner Bros. cartoons to the next generation. That, or maybe, since Dar’s brother is rather small, he relates to Tweety’s tender vulnerability. Maybe that’s something he knows he shares with his brother.
On another topic, lately I’ve been reading and hearing a lot about artificial intelligence, or A.I., or AI. Maybe Westward and Black Mirror have something to do with it. Maybe Common doing ads for Microsoft AI has something to do with it. Maybe it’s all these self-driving cars finally having accidents, or maybe the lack of intelligence coming out of government has Americans in a wistful mood. The New Yorker, among others, had a long piece about AI. The New Yorker wasn’t as concerned as some AI thinkers, for example Sam Harris, about the panic that could result from us creating something that could be suffering. I think about that a lot, because of Dar.
We know that suffering exists. We know that all living creatures will do almost anything to stop themselves from suffering, from pain. Put the hand of any animal on a hot stove, and it will do almost anything to get its hand off of it. On a personal level, the instinct to minimize suffering is so fundamental that we may not have any “bigger” instinct. In fact, that instinct probably keeps us from living many of our dreams or changing the world; we fear suffering for actions beyond the safest ones.
What about the instinct to minimize others’ suffering? I believe this exists for all non-psychopathic people, not just liberals. How do I know? Because I see them look up at the Starbucks or an airport gate when Dar is screaming bloody murder. We hear a child scream, and we notice. It’s not just on the level of an annoyance, like a broken car alarm; there’s an instinct telling us that that’s bad.
Now that Dar is 8, his screaming carries a particularly negative social cost. When he was a baby, well, babies scream. People know that even toddlers scream for next-to-no reason. When an adult screams while not being obviously assaulted or threatened, it means that said adult is probably crazy. Dar is at an age, perhaps more accurately a size, where he’s too big to scream for a toddler’s reasons but too small to defend himself against true predators…thus provoking major empathy from the uninitiated (who don’t know that he may well be screaming for a toddler’s reasons).
Dar’s therapist believes that he screams while he hits things (usually walls) to get attention, and that if you don’t pay attention, and demand “quiet hands,” you can defuse Dar’s situation. I try that, sometimes. But often, I run out of patience. The screams are too much for me. My own instincts take over. I’m not proud of this.
Because I don’t want Dar to suffer, when he screams, I bring him his iPad/talker and say “what’s wrong?” or “show me here.” When that fails, I feed him. Anything and everything. When that fails, I might try to hug him, but he’ll almost always push me away. And then the screaming continues. He’s suffering and we’re suffering for his suffering. Shouldn’t suffering eventually have an end? When it comes to alleviating suffering, shouldn’t there be better alternatives than that sociopath bus driver in Vacaville, or that psychopath in Australia?
In some ways, it’s comforting to know that people care about suffering. I wonder what sort of jokes they make with Siri or Alexa. “Hey Alexa, how can I hurt your feelings?”
But based on some of the AI articles, people clearly compartmentalize the (hypothetical) pain of machines. Perhaps these people can teach me something about compartmentalizing the pain of my child.
I had some nice bonding with my neighbor, Nelson, this week, while we were working on a joint project of removing all traces of a malignant tree (no metaphor implied). I said to him, I feel bad that you have to hear Dar screaming all the time. He truly doesn’t mind, he just feels bad for Dar (he has that instinct). I said “but you didn’t sign the lease on your house thinking you’d have this regular interruption.” And he said, “neither did you.” (We’ve been neighbors since before Dar was born.) We’re not moving anytime soon, maybe ever, unless it’s to a rural ranch. Right now we’re on a corner, and so Dar can scream all morning starting at 5:30am (this happens often enough) and (probably) not bother any neighbors. At other times he can scream in our backyard and pretty much only bother Nelson and his family. We couldn’t hope for a better place to raise Dar.
I don’t know of a book that can tell you how to deal with your 8-year-old child’s suffering when the child can’t talk, can’t tell you where it hurts. Where is that book? I can watch the movie The Miracle Worker, but ultimately that leads to a deliverance that feels very out-of-reach for us. I have googled and come up with this and this. Anyone know how I can do better?