April 12, 2015KR BlogBlogEnthusiamsReadingUncategorized

Compassion in FOX’s King of the Hill and William Wordsworth

Compassion, momentarily, became part of the national conversation in 2013 after novelist George Saunders focused on the term in his popular commencement speech at Syracuse University. Saunders urged the graduating class to be kinder, explaining “What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness…. Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded . . . sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.” In my all-time favorite TV show, King of the Hill. the main characters often feel and express compassion for each other. In “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood,” Wordsworth reassures us we’ll all grow more compassionate as we grow older.

In the episode “Transnational Amusements Presents: Peggy’s Magic Sex Feet,” we learn that Peggy Hill has size 16 feet, and that they’re often a source of embarrassment. After a fellow patron of Women’s Big & Tall sets her up with a bogus foot doctor, Peggy gets conned into making “educational” films to empower other big-footed women. At the end of the episode, after realizing they’re actually foot fetish videos, Peggy goes from feeling “like Rosa Parks” to feeling humiliated. When her 12-year-old son Bobby passes her bedroom and sees her crying, he asks her why she’s not off making another empowering video.

Bobby: Artistic differences?
Peggy: No. Well….? [Dejectedly] No. All that stuff I told you about empowerment? It was all lies. The whole time I was making smush videos, and they only wanted me for my ugly feet.
Bobby: That was mean of them.
Peggy: You don’t understand, Bobby. I actually let myself believe that these were beautiful. Can you imagine… Peggy Hill, that stupid?
Bobby: I can imagine, mom. I’m fat.
Peggy: Oh, no! No, honey, you’re husky! It says so on your jeans!
Bobby: Mom, I’m fat. But big deal! I don’t feel bad about it. You never made me feel bad about it. And just because there are some people in the world who want me to feel bad about it, doesn’t mean I have to. So Bobby Hill’s fat? Heh! He’s also funny, he’s nice, he’s got a lot of friends, a girlfriend and [gesturing with a water gun], if you don’t mind, I think I’ll go outside and shoot her with water. What’re you going to do?

The episode ends with Peggy back at the bowling alley. When it’s her turn to give her shoe size, she wrenches the microphone from the employee and proclaims “My name is Peggy Hill, and I will take a size 16 and a half.” Peggy’s past caring what others think, and that’s a pretty great message, especially in the midst of a such a funny episode. The episode has everything from sight gags, like the doctor needing two lightboards to hang an X-ray of Peggy’s huge foot, to pathos-laden moments when Peggy, oblivious to the true audience of the videos, starts to love her feet again (“No more painting my toenails alone in the dark!”). The show mines the complex emotions that come with striving to accept our imperfections. And in Bobby’s mother’s moment of darkness, he stood there with her and shared his own struggle.

William Wordsworth sees compassion as a quality that develops with age in his poem “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” The poem describes an adult mourning the loss of his childhood sense of wonder; he dislikes seeing the world from the perspective of an adult. He still notices and appreciates lambs frolicking and streams flowing, but he also sees places that remind him of losses and deaths. Still, the poem optimistically finds multiple silver linings to maturing, one of which is the development of a more compassionate heart and mind:

Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind.

Listening to, loving, connecting with, and accepting someone for who they are — these are the actions of the compassionate, according to sociologist Brene Brown, and are what Bobby did for Peggy. Wordsworth’s speaker also connects to others with “primal sympathy” and “soothing thoughts” and a philosophical, compassionate perspective. Intrestingly, researchers Gottman and Levenson write in The Atlantic’s “Masters of Love” that in studying lasting marriages they discovered that compassion is the vital component:

….there’s a great deal of evidence showing the more someone receives or witnesses kindness, the more they will be kind themselves, which leads to upward spirals of love and generosity in a relationship.