When we heartily dislike someone (and for example, in these disgruntled times the letters pages of this newspaper are ringing with seething expressions of wholly understandable dislike of our Prime Minister and of ACT Liberal senator Zed Seselja) are we being fair? What is going on in our grumbling minds?
How well do we know the objects of our rage, malice, contempt? If we really knew them, would we find them - if not loveable - then at least forgivably human, chips off the same flawed block of humanity that our superior-feeling selves are chipped from?
Just as I am agonising over these sorts of Big Pictures (agonising, for one's stubborn inability to like anything about one's Prime Minister gives one no joy, and feels unkind and unchristian) up pops online a wise and tender essay titled "What's it really like to be someone else?"
But Clellan Coe's thoughtfully challenging piece for The American Scholar does not so much help with my dilemma as deepen and complicate it.
For my half-theory that perhaps I wouldn't so dislike Scott Morrison and Zed Seselja and others who agitate me if I really knew them comes up against her, Ms Coe's, persuasive argument that it is impossible for us to ever know what it is like to be someone else.
She really has tried, she explains, giving us lots of poignant instances of when she's done her best to try to understand the feelings of friends and colleagues suffering personal anguishes and misfortunes.
But alas, she concludes, to have sincere empathy, to "understand" someone else's nature, someone else's struggles, is not enough.
"Understanding is being outside too, suffering the heat or the cold or, if the other is locked inside, then being there in the room, rather than just looking in the window ... So people are always trying to get in and understand. Harper Lee's Atticus Finch [in To Kill a Mockingbird] says that to really understand another person you should 'climb into his skin and walk around in it', but whatever insights [characters in fiction trying to understand others] gain are only about themselves.
"As the philosopher Thomas Nagel says, imagining yourself with wings, an appetite for insects, and poor vision gives you an idea of what it would be like for you to be a bat, but the question is what it is like for a bat. No imagining will tell you."
If Ms Coe hadn't mentioned Nagel's intellectually tickling What Is It Like to Be a Bat?, I was going to bring it up myself in this discussion of our struggles to feel understanding of, and therefore true empathy for, hard-to-like Morrisonesque figures.
Even if (left-liberal and agnostic) I were somehow able to imagine myself a lifelong member of the Liberal Party and a tongues-speaking Pentecostal Christian (harder, for me, than Nagel found it to imagine himself something winged and nocturnal with an appetite for insects and an aerobatic ability to catch them in flight), it wouldn't help. It still doesn't tell me what that feels like for someone who really is a Liberal, and really does believe what Pentecostal Christians somehow manage to believe.
One thing one does not properly understand until one is old (I am 75) is how thoroughly we are sculpted by our childhoods, upbringings and by socialising forces of all kinds. When I say to myself that Scott Morrison's unfortunate personality is in some ways the unwitting prisoner of his zealous Christian beliefs (although one imagines his career in advertising has, too, played its malignant part) my agile and conscience-pricking mind comes up and confronts me.
"But Ian," it shirtfronts, "aren't we atheists in a kind of character-shaping prison of our own? Isn't that the big thing that makes us, surely irrationally and unfairly, as incapable of putting on and walking about in an evangelical Christian's skin as putting on and flitting about in a bat's skin? Do try not to be so smug and judgmental."
Flouncing out in a huff (Me? Smug? Judgmental?), and trying to leave my mind at home (for sometimes it is no fun to be with) I went for my first walk in the National Arboretum (Canberra's very own man-made wonder of the world) since studying scientists' confident predictions that Australia is warming so quickly that by 2050 there will be no winters.
But my pesky mind came with me, wondering what the coming winterlessness will mean for the trees of the arboretum.
On my wander I visited two of my favourite forests, the forests of the Adaminaby snow gum and of the horse chestnut.
What awaits the indescribably beautiful Adaminaby gums (on Thursday their ghostly trunks and branches were so luminously white, as if made of light rather than solid timber)? Native to a bleakly frosty habitat near Adaminaby, they need bitter cold to become the best they can be, to thrive. Will relentless hotness wither and kill them?
The horse chestnut is a deciduous species (at the moment, in this bleak midwinter, the species displays a starkly naked forest with not a leaf to be seen). But deciduousness is an adaptation, triggered by cold, to enable the survival of winters. Will winterlessness bewilder the arboretum's many deciduous species, leaving them perennially leafy and perhaps debilitated?
Horse chestnuts can grow to 30 metres and live for a challenging 300 years. What climate changes and vicissitudes they will know, these adolescent nudists (only planted in 2009, they are still growing up) I walked among on Thursday. What is it like to be an Adaminaby snow gum, a horse chestnut?
- Ian Warden is a regular columnist.