Poor old Philip K. Dick. A writer born with an immense amount of talent and an eager, open mind, but easily hurt by the cruel-seeming ways with which his fellow travellers treated him.
One of Phil’s major themes in his stories could be summed up in the question “What makes us human?” Time and again, he came down on the side of empathy as the most essential human trait. People who could show empathy to others were human; those without that ability were synthetic beings, as eerie as a life-like but otherwise empty mannequin of a human.
To be sure, playful Phil liked to turn his themes upside down from time to time; witness the android Abraham Lincoln in “We Can Build You” — technically a mechanical man, but still capable of a surprising amount of emotional life, quite possibly exceeding that of his creators.
Examples of Phil’s ideal humans are often the main characters in his stories. But the ones we remember most are the female characters who embody his duality of human-or-android. Rachel in “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” or Pris in “We Can Build You” show what Phil imagined was the less empathetic end of the scale. Pris, for example, was borderline psychotic and unable to love Louis, the protagonist of the novel. Louis is forced to compare the flesh-and-blood PRis to the gears-and-springs Abe Lincoln and, sadly (maybe inevitably, due to Phil’s world view) the flesh falls short, as it ever does.
Phil’s biographers have drawn paralels between Phil’s view of humanity, particularly his view of femininity, and Phil’s personal life. The connection seems obvious, at least to me. Phil was always searching for a woman who would allow him to be as close to her as possible, who would not take the opportunity to hurt and attack him if he showed his human vulnerability. A woman who would recognize that there was a part of him that felt pain when someone lied to him. Phil was aware and mature enough to recognize that people were far from perfect, to be sure; however, he also needed others to acknowledge their imperfections in a specific way. While he was hurt, as he was by the young runaway Donna with whom he lived for a while, he also desired others to speak to him about their actions, to try to repair the damage done to him and to the relationship that existed between them, to make amends. That was the best use of empathy in Phil Dick’s mind; to use positive, healing actions and words to salve the wounds caused by our human imperfections.
The Five-factor model gives us a way to describe complex human behavior, and rates its subject on five different scales. In a strict scientific sense the Five-factor model has flaws; for one thing, it makes no predictions and it appears to be unverifiable (there’s a similar model, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, that shares similar flaws) but if used simply as a way to describe a snapshot in time of a subject’s personality, and not as a hard-and-fast definitive view, it can be a useful shorthand.
The factors are: Extraversion, which measures the energy level of the individual in seeking social contact; Agreeableness, which measures cooperation and social harmony; Conscientiousness, which meausres how well an individual handles impulses, needs, and wants; Emotional Stability, which rates a subjects sensitivity to their inner emotional life; and Openness, which attempts to rate the person’s creativity and flexibility of thought.
Using this scale, and having read several biographies of Phil Dick’s life, I think that it’s easy to see that while Phil would score high in Agreeability and Openness, he would likely score low in Extraversion and Emotional Stability, a mixture that informs the characters he wrestled with in his novels. He liked being around people and would willingly continue an interaction, but would rarely initiate contact. And then, as people would reveal their discomfort for the intense intimacy that Phil preferred, or the less scrupulous would take advantage of it, Phil would feel an almost physical pain, cut to the core by their actions.
Like most of us, Phil tended to assume that the world would be a much better place if most others thought the same way he did, a blindness that caused him to elevate what he thought were his better values to absolute virtues; namely his love of positive interaction with others, his concern for people’s immediate well-being, his need to feel that concern reciprocated. His empathy.
Rarely did he find it in his sadly shortened life. But the few times he did were the hallmarks of a very human life.
I find it easy to identify with Phil’s values, since I believe I share many of his personality traits. I would imagine that our scores in the Five Factor model would be very similar, although I might score a bit lower in Agreeableness than Phil. But, certainly, the ability to not only feel other’s emotions, but to respond and react to them, to attempt to redress the negative impact one has on others and to encourage the positive impact on others is an immensely valuable quality. And rare.
Consider the case of someone who recognizes that lying and shutting others out and showing disrespect to someone with whom they wish friendship is bad, recognizes that that is the result of their actions… but continues to insist that they are friends. There’s a strange disconnect, treating these very negative traits as though they were simply a part of them, like their fingernails or their height, something that needs to be accepted, that in fact must be accepted as the price to pay for their superficially friendly interaction? There is a chasm between what I value and the actions they take that, I believe, preclude friendship. Such a person would be so alien to my way of thinking that I would have to borrow Phil’s term and call them an “android”.
My low score in Extraversion suggest my strategy for dealing with this; avoidance of the person involved. But a high score in Openness and moderate score for Agreeableness likewise suggest (accurately, but, then, bear with me as I abuse the model to drive home a point) that I would be amenable to the other person attempting to make amends.
But it would have to start with an apology. I would need to see that not only does the other acknowledge the conflict, but is attempting to redress the conflict.
If such a person stated that they were aware of these conflicts of values, how, then, could they consider leaving a door open for friendship without attempting to change? Behavior is not like the number of toes on your foot or the placement of your eyes; behavior can be changed, can be modified. It’s mutable, within limits. And if, as I realize that others may believe, it’s not able to be changed, then continued interaction is only going to continue to hurt at least one and probably both participants. And we only tend to hurt those we see as less than human, or we attack to cover our own vulnerabilty, or we lash out when we ourselves are fearful of impending hurt. Assuming one cares about the well-being of people we call friends, and assuming one doesn’t want to purposely hurt people one cares about (need I assume that?), and assuming one has relinquished all control over ones behavior… the only remaining solution, then, is complete avoidance.
Is it that unimaginable that someone would see the contradictions and want to exclude such a hollow person from their life? I understand that not everyone values the same things I value; I put a very high value on honesty and openness, maybe sometimes too high. But I also recognize that folks who have other values, and who place a low emphasis on the things I value, are poor candidates for friendship. And so I’m not going to push myself on people who exist in such a different world than myself. I accept my limitations and I seek to minimize them in my normal, day-to-day interactions with others.
But unless someone else has the self-awareness to understand that I have a part of myself that can be hurt by actions that they see as insignifant, I am not going to seek a closer relationship to that person. I am, in fact, going to avoid them, and to defend myself whenever someone like that reveals themself to me. It’s not a judgement I make quickly, by any means. But once I’m aware of that conflict in values, I am going to be constantly on my guard, and it would require greater and greater efforts by the other to overcome that defensiveness. That conflict in values is going to color even the simplest interaction I have with them. I’m open to change, but if the other states that change, for them, is not possible, what choice do I have?