Robotic legs, joy, and empathy


I don’t watch Dancing With the Stars, but found this story on the Post (by Sarah Kaufman) and loved everything about it.

I love the way the article is written, with real intelligence and compassion and insight.  Love the centerpiece of the story, double-amputee Amy Purdy.  Love the descriptions of the dancing (“Purdy is all slow burn with her circling hips and supple spine, and she makes you feel it”) and of Purdy herself (“part Terminator, part department-store mannequin”).  It’s fun language, the kind that welcomes you.  And the article itself is kind of strangely joyful, dance-like.  It leads perfectly from Purdy’s story to a broader look at how the culture and the technology of disability has been changing.  (Also — I watched the video of her routine, and she really is amazing.)

This quote, from an MIT professor (a double-amputee himself), stood out to me:

We put cells and tissues on a pedestal. We think cells and tissues are godly and spiritual. And that a person who has an artificial limb — that limb is not really human. But that idea will disappear.

As a kid who grew up on science fiction, I always empathized with robots.  And aliens.  Robots and aliens were stand-ins, intentionally or not, for every kind of outsider imaginable.  Kids who read a lot are already outsiders, I think.  At least I felt that way.  And when you read, you live quite a bit inside your head.  So the message that what’s important is exactly that — what’s inside your head, or inside your spirit — was a welcome one.  Not that I didn’t want to belong.  But if there were going to be outcasts, then I was always going to side with the outcasts.

Reminded me of another recent story too.  Someone did a study in the past year on whether crustaceans and other invertebrates could feel pain.  Made me think, obviously, of David Foster Wallace’s fantastic “Consider the Lobster.”   What I remember most about his article is that he wasn’t condemning anyone for eating lobster, or chicken, or anything else that might conceivably involve inhumane treatment of animals.  He was just saying that he thought it was important to know, to ask the question — is this the right thing to do?  Are we causing unnecessary suffering?  Regardless of the answer, doesn’t it have to be the right thing to do, as human beings, to ask these questions?

Not much of a connection between the stories.  But that quote, that “We think cells and tissues are godly and spiritual,” isn’t quite complete — we think our cells and tissues are godly and spiritual.  For other creatures, not so much.  They’re “not really human” — not a part of our little club.  Which, okay, is true.  But when we cast ourselves as exceptional, it gets a lot tougher to have any real empathy.



About the author

Tom Howard

Tom Howard is the author of Fierce Pretty Things (Indiana University Press, 2019).

He received his MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Fierce Pretty Things won the 2018 Blue Light Books Fiction Prize, and his individual stories have won the Ninth Letter Literary Award in Fiction, the Indiana Review Fiction Prize, the Robert and Adele Schiff Award for Fiction, the Carve Magazine Prose & Poetry Contest, the Tobias Wolff Award in Fiction, the Innovative Short Fiction Prize, the Willow Springs Ficiton Prize, the Rash Award in Fiction, and the Robert J. DeMott Award for Short Prose.

He lives with his wife in Arlington, Virginia.

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