10/16/2012 04:10 pm ET Updated Dec 15, 2012

Beyond Borders With Brad and Angelina and All of Us

It would have to be more than coincidental that the Brad Pitt Chanel commercial that apparently is making people sneer, comes on right before the 2003 film Beyond Borders starring Angelina Jolie, Clive Owens and lots of others -- a movie about African starvation and war and Cambodian relief and tragedy. It's Italy, and American actors such as George Clooney and Julia Roberts doing commercials for phones and coffee is not a strange thing; it's not looked down on here so they can make lots of money doing it.

I write about superstition and emotional fluency and getting to surprise and I've said many times that the most inconvenient of truths are the ones that affect us personally. So I, who might otherwise have sneered too, began this movie and suddenly thought, "Well, why shouldn't Brad Pitt make money in Italy to possibly do amazing good in various parts of the world? Who am I to judge that, who am I at all?" I have dwelled in the land of psychological truths and in trying to understand why it's been so hard for us to get on with our real connections to compassion, why we are numb and cold in the face of our neighbor's poverty and our global neighbors' starvation and the brutality of genocide and other violence. But it comes to me that it's as if I have taken the luxury of remaining skeptical about those who devote so much time to one cause when really, when all during this or any time, terrible things are happening to people and to our planet while I and others try to figure out a way towards taking caring seriously.

It's easy to be skeptical and distant from the poverty in other countries when our compassion at home has been lacking to a great extent, as long as we don't have to see the faces and know the people who suffer. It's easy for us to have the war in Afghanistan the longest and least talked about, as Arianna Huffington wrote the other day, when again we don't have to know the players and see the damage. But maybe, I think tonight with what I would say is in fact surprise, there might be a way of doing some of each even while we are trying to live our personal lives and figure out our feelings and thoughts and opinions.

Even, in fact, when there will be a presidential debate tonight that will probably, at least it seems from here, settle or decide the election unless something inadvertent happens. Even when there is a what is called a "crisis" all over Europe that doesn't approach starvation, even though having no job and no services and no security and no sense of future is bad enough. But maybe, just maybe, we can feel for our own sadness and still give to others and see what they look like, what our soldiers in Afghanistan and the other soldiers of other countries and the civilians look like as well.

It is fairly radical for me even to think, or consider that for once in my life, that I'm not as worried about who will be president as I am about the state of the nation, and how polarized it has become. Caring seems to many to be communism and for the conservatives who feel threatened by encroachment probably for centuries, there has been little liberal capacity to engage in a compassionate way, at least to attempt to understand where such negative feelings and opinions come from. I kind of feel that yes, it's important to nominate a Supreme Court that will ensure the rights of gay human beings, and women over their own bodies, and yes I also think the next administration can nominate a Supreme Court that says such legislation can be voted down by Congress or just changed by a different group of judges.

I have thought that inconvenience has to be personal to mean something, and maybe tonight, with the help of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, I come closer to caring about people very far away, as I think of giving some money that I usually spend on a luxury on some cause or country I can get to know about. It doesn't mean I will be a self-righteous goody two shoes, or better than other people. But it means that I can stop indulging in a kind of skepticism which in its way renders me as cold as the people I tend to criticize.

I don't know truly what Brad Pitt is doing with the Chanel money but I do know his reputation for being a decent, down-to-earth guy, and I do know this couple have put themselves at risk and open to getting to know people and babies they have cared about. Who are we to judge, really?

A propos of judging, it is exciting that a presidential debate has come to be so like a boxing match as we watch for points and stupidities and losses and wins. At the same time, it is sad, isn't it, that most of us are going into it to see a sports event and not to learn about the candidates' positions? And it is sad that neither is going in to discuss and share with the other, to find points of agreement, that neither is going in to be surprised.

At the end of the day, tomorrow or the next, just maybe those of us who watch or not, can go for surprise and getting to know other positions and people even while our leaders won't and while we wait to better understand why so many people insist they are right at any cost.