Empathy for the Double

Paul Zelevansky

“The Father of the arrow is the thought:
How do I expand my reach?”

(Paul Klee, The Pedagogical Sketchbook)

Can two household objects find love?

I recently completed a short film, a romantic comedy about an Oven Mitt and a Spatula, which follows the ups and downs of a relationship between two familiar objects. To mirror the conventional Hollywood plot, I will identify the Mitt as male, and the Spatula as female. Over the course of the film, the Oven Mitt expresses his thoughts and desires through very simple gestures and the singing of various American pop standards from the 1930s and 40s. The Spatula for her part has even fewer options for action as she can’t twist or bend, but in response to the Oven Mitt’s movements and expressions, stretches the definition of what a Spatula might hope to become.

The bodies of the Oven Mitt and the Spatula are structurally defined by the ways they serve the human hand, in particular protecting it from sources of heat in the kitchen when carrying a hot tea kettle, or frying an egg. In the spirit of the Paul Klee quote, oven mitts and spatulas literally expand human reach, but in the context of the film, try to expand their own sense of possibility. Before they are puppets who mime human qualities, the Oven Mitt and the Spatula are everyday consumer objects. So to watch and root for their transcendence, we have to think beyond their qualities as expendable and replaceable tools that live inside kitchen drawers or hang on hooks. A clip from the film:


It is the Oven Mitt’s face that carries the weight of signaling consciousness, sometimes supported by a hopeful wave of his thumb. Two dots for eyes and a straight line for a mouth is a familiar stand-in for a face in children’s drawings and comics, and the Mitt makes “eye contact” with the viewer as he passes through various emotional and physical states. While the Spatula doesn’t have an identifiable set of eyes, her responses to the Mitt are made believable because he does. But while the Mitt appears to think and feel different things, the two dots and the straight line remain essentially the same, except when they are bent and twisted by an action. Nonetheless, different states of mind seem to reside in the Mitt’s psyche: he appears to experience pleasure, sadness, confusion; he considers his own state of mind, and attempts to change. He sings songs that express his hopes and dreams. He dances, he remembers, and later in the story he tolerates a haircut.

This tension between the object’s commonplace destiny, and the possibility that it might escape beyond it, may create a deeper identification in the audience; a desire to nurture things that have not been nurtured before. And when two

characters move towards each other in the familiar romantic comedy arc–first in friendship, then perhaps in conflict, and finally in love–the audience is encouraged to root for a happy ending. Yet why would an audience believe that the Mitt and Spatula would be receptive to their care and concern? I can’t be sure, but like the Mitt and the Spatula, the audience has also come a long way, and as Bob Marley reminded us: “In this bright future you can’t forget your past.”


(Walker Evans)

The most striking idea for me in a brief Wikipedia etymology of empathy, is the German word Einfühlung, translated into English as “feeling into.” The description goes on to draw a distinction between empathy as an active acknowledgment of another’s sadness and pain—to step into their shoes–and emotions like compassion and sympathy through which one might recognize another’s need, but not presume to share in it even if there was a desire to help. For example, what is the emotional cost, or reward, in watching a TV ad for impoverished children, and then sending a charitable donation?


(Lynn Johnson)

I have long had an interest in Fred Rogers, the creator of the famed TV show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

In addition to having been a showrunner for NBC, and a scholar of early childhood development studying under people like Benjamin Spock, Eric Ericson, and Margaret McFarland at the Arsenal Center in Pittsburgh, Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister. While to his great credit, he never inserted religion into any of his TV work, his philosophy and creative thinking was very much a product of Christian values as he understood and practiced them. In the essay “The Theology of Mister Rogers,” poet William Guy explores Rogers’ pedagogical and social practice on television in regard to concepts like grace, which in theological terms refers to a divine spirit immanent in the world that operates in and inspires virtue in human behavior.

“It is important to stress that what is being proposed by Mister Rogers is not some dire dreariness of perpetual soul-numbing servitude, some permanent state of deprivation and interiority, but rather a system of “grace upon grace,” a system in which what had once been the sole prerogative of a few will achieve an infinite multiplication that redounds and accrues unto all.”  (William Guy)

In 2008, my wife and I moved to Pittsburgh from Los Angeles, and before too long I made contact with Rogers’ production company. While Rogers had died in 2004, the people at the Fred Rogers Company were more than welcoming, and eventually I pitched an idea to create a series of one-minute videos called MISTER ROGERS FOR ADULTS. Built around video, audio writings from their archives, these would not be directed at children or parenting, but at adults, and focused on Rogers’ thinking about work, relationships, and many other existential challenges and opportunities.

In one example incorporating a 1980 interview segment from Mister Rogers Neighborhood, Rogers has a conversation with a wheelchair bound young boy (Jeff Erlanger) who is quadriplegic. He asks him about how he came to be disabled and in a wheelchair, and what his life is like. Then they sing a Mister Rogers Neighborhood song together called ”It’s You I like,” and Rogers changes some of the words from “It’s you I like, it’s not the clothes you wear” to “It’s not your fancy chair.” This generates a smile and a laugh from Erlanger.


Every time I watch this video, I feel a large lump in my throat. Is this a manifestation of sadness, or gratitude, or a sense of elation that Erlanger can take such pleasure in what is almost a joke at his expense? I have come to think of this laugh as Erlanger’s gift to anyone watching.

That Fred Rogers would be compassionate and sympathetic to a child is not surprising, but what he enacts is a kind of deep empathy where he acknowledges Erlanger’s fundamental humanity–the “you” in the song. Erlanger’s disability, his essential vulnerability, is central to his life, and a fact that others can’t easily ignore, but he is not reduced to its terms. I would characterize this by saying that Rogers meets him “where he is,” looks him in the eye in the truest sense of the word, and so in the moments when they sing together, they visibly “feel into” each other.

I would add that this gift of intimacy was and is experienced remotely via a screen, a fact that Fred Rogers was very clear about. His understanding that emotional connection can be exchanged across the space of a television screen–what he referred to as “holy ground”–was central to his philosophy and craft.


We respond to the moment, but at the same time we respond on its behalf, we answer for it. A newly-created concrete reality has been laid in our arms; we answer for it. A dog has looked at you, you answer for its glance, a child has clutched your hand, you answer for its touch, a host of men moves around you, you answer for their need.  (Martin Buber, Between Man and Man, 17)

In this quote philosopher Martin Buber speaks of encounters where need is expressed and care engaged, as instances of the divine, opportunities that we come upon and are drawn to “on their behalf.” This appeal may come from the eyes, the touch, or a felt sense of need but it requires a purposeful, intrinsic, leaning into the moment that everyday life makes available. For Buber, it is essential that these “instances” be understood as immanent, not visitations from on high. What does it mean to “answer” in this way? As a call for help anticipates a response, and a conversation requires it, Buber is talking about an acknowledgement, a confirmation of another’s existential presence in the world.

The Oven Mitt and the Spatula, like other puppets, serve as ideal foils, or mirrors for this kind of relationship as they will not reject us, judge us, or make unreasonable demands. In the case of the Oven Mitt though, his expression at times can be said to verge on the “pathetic,” but the notion of pity would seem to undercut the kind of engagement that Buber describes and Fred Rogers enacts. The pitied is implicitly inferior, as well as weak, even if the rescuer believes they can raise him or her up from their abject state. A question to consider: Can one feel empathy for someone or something that cannot help itself?

(Drawing by Franz Kafka from The Trial)

Accepting our responsibility to meet the child, the animal, or the stranger where they are, we also identify with their fragility and need, because we recognize things about ourselves in them. This may include the sense that we are, as Franz Kafka might describe it, vulnerable puppets and prisoners of forces beyond our control, in need of solace and dreaming of redemption.


Social media provides many opportunities for contact with other people’s faces through photography and video, and Facebook is the most extensive network certainly for people of my age. The minute-by-minute opportunity to see what the people in one’s friendship cohort are thinking about, or experiencing, through the insertion of pictures and/or commentary, is both miraculous and banal.

Consider an informal test case of life on Facebook:

On February 6 of this year, my wife and I celebrated our 47th wedding anniversary and our youngest daughter posted this picture on her Facebook page with a loving but sardonic tagline which we thoroughly appreciated. Taken in Iowa City in 1968, it generated several comments (36) and “likes” (73) over a three day period, many from friends of both our daughters (some of whom we know personally) and some from our friends. A number of the comments noted how much our younger daughter looked like my wife, and some spoke to the many years that we had managed to stay married. All of this was gratefully received and enjoyed by us, but should we have felt flattered by the attention?

One aspect of this chain of comments and responses could be attributed to a sense of nostalgia: This is what we looked like back then in a fashion appropriate to the styles and values of our peers. But of course our daughter’s friends did not experience this time except through other images. If they felt nostalgia it was for an ideal created by movies, television, and photography including no doubt pictures of their own families. On the other hand, an essential connection to this lineage was through my younger daughter’s resemblance to my wife, so the commentary was also a celebration of her. All hail genetics.

Then, from the perspective of our daughter’s friends, there is also the possibly patronizing notion that we were “cute” versions of parents, accessible and unthreatening. And does the recognition that while we once looked this way and don’t any longer, make the photo sad in its blunt reminder of what is lost? A comfort to the young who are many years away from this kind of celebration?

Photos are undeniably charged points of contact with the lives of others, invested with the touch of time, circumstance, and place. But when we look at an image of a face do we in any sense answer to a “moment” of contact or revelation and take responsibility for an emotional and psychological investment? Or should we just accept that the image is fungible evidence we can share of what we understand, or believe to be true and real?


In the aftermath of the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the strangulation death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, NY during an arrest for a petty crime, many street protests around the country were built around the phrase (on t-shirts and a twitter hashtag) “BLACK LIVES MATTER.” While this was a rhetorically astute way to connect the specifics of these incidents to the broad history of racism in America, it strongly asserts an ideal of what the public should be addressing and feeling: to acknowledge the “humanity” of African-Americans and to engage a passionate sense of justice and compassion for victims past, present, and future. The repeated appearance of this slogan in the context of video images from cell phones and twitter feeds roiling the social media ocean was also a reminder that the public manipulation of feelings towards sympathy or guilt was a powerful means to a political end.

WE ARE ALL____________!

Casting a fraught shadow over the police shootings were the Moslem jihadist attacks in Paris in December 2014 at the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine and a jewish kosher supermarket. The emotional cry of “WE ARE ALL CHARLIE HEBDO” (again circulated by hashtags, t-shirts, and signs) was perhaps raised to the level of dark comic absurdity by the front ranks of world leaders participating in a mass solidarity demonstration in Paris. The point here is that the BLANK which can be filled in by whoever we define as WE (victims of oppression, advocates for freedom, sympathetic bystanders, guilty westerners, politicians in need of moral re-branding) carries an enormous burden weighted with both justified fear, and self-serving sentimentality.

Because I can see or project myself inside the circumstances of another’s BLANK, do I empathetically share their loss and pain or just “LIKE” it, echo it as something that I agree with like a Facebook post?

There have recently been published reports that Facebook is exploring the idea of an EMPATHY button to extend the idea of “like” to expressions of sadness or sympathy. Feeling into with a click. The rhetorical presentation of a public mourning—whether through ad hoc memorials of stuffed animals and balloons, or repetitive channeling of news images on a screen–demands attention which often calls out for some idea of healing or “closure,” a word flogged by print and broadcast media when the expression of despair is not a rhetorical option. This wish for resolution is both public and intimate, like an overheard conversation. Sadness and sympathy for others? Sadness and sympathy for myself? Empathy for the double.



In a 2006 essay I wrote for the American Journal of Psychoanalysis called PRESENCE: THE TOUCH OF THE PUPPET, D.W. Winnicott was a touchstone for thinking about an audience’s identification with puppets and other inanimate things. In Playing and Reality, he describes a seven-year-old boy who is brought into treatment after exhibiting several symptoms of distress including systematically tying up the furniture in his house with string. Winnicott eventually learns that the child has developed a fear of abandonment after a series of events in which his mother was necessarily absent from home–including time spent in the hospital for depression and giving birth to a second child. Winnicott comes to the conclusion that the boy was denying his fear of separation through various symbolic attempts to enact connection. This mapping of the image of the string to the perception  or kinetic sensation that it represents, corresponds to the infant’s developing ability to absorb other qualities and levels of description through manipulation and play.

I referred to two objects as being both joined and separated by the string. This is the paradox that I accept and do not attempt to resolve. The baby’s separating-out of the world of objects from the self is achieved only in the absence of a space between, the potential space being filled in the way that I am describing. It could be said that with human beings there can be no separation, only a threat of separation.     (Winnicott, 1989, p.108)

It is the destiny of puppets to represent both fragility and resilience. Punch gives and takes the punch for all of us. So it is possible to identify with them, even while recognizing that removed from the life support of the puppeteer (or the audience’s suspension of disbelief) they might return to being cloth, string and wood (and therefore die) or resume their pragmatic lives as an oven mitt or a spatula. In the end, while the puppeteer controls the physical or metaphorical string, the audience extends its belief by “playing along” and keeping the connection alive. In this sense they answer for the puppet’s need.

To paraphrase Winnicott: people can live with the threat of an unbridgeable gap between lived experience and the sign, but the gap is ultimately unacceptable. That is, we can acknowledge and celebrate our existential autonomy, but cannot give up the need for connection and investment in people and things. Is this the “potential space” where empathy resides? Is empathy what you find when you meet and feel into another person–“where they are”–in the middle of the bridge between separation and connection?

To return to where we began: “The father of the arrow is the thought.

How do I expand my reach?”


Paul Zelevansky may be contacted at: pzelevansky@comcast.net

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