Monday, March 14, 2011
Here's something that has never made sense to me regarding suffering: asking, "Why?"
If the earth were uninhabited, its tectonic plates would move all the same. Earthquakes and tsunamis would happen all over the desolate world, hurting no one. We suffer because we live on a planet on which the shifting and fracturing of the upper mantle are a natural and inevitable occurrence. We suffer because accidents and illnesses happen. We suffer because stupidity, self-interest, insanity, or power-lust cause people to harm one another or themselves. We suffer, finally, because we cherish those who feel the effects of these natural occurrences, accidents, and evils, and because love makes loss almost unbearable.
We happen to live here and we have the capacity to care, about ourselves and/or others. Of course we suffer. That capacity to care is also what enables us to experience wonder and joy.
I suppose it's only natural that we seek to avoid suffering. That is, it's understandable to want to avoid it. But I also believe we are morally obligated not to turn a blind eye to it, and the reason I'm bringing this up is a Facebook thread I read yesterday that really, really bothered me. These are the statements that I found irritating:
Person A: "I have not been able to bring myself to look at images from Japan yet."
Person B: "There are some of us who can truly feel deep compassion without the visuals."
Person C: "I refuse to. I don't need to be traumatised by that flood of images (can we call it disaster-porn?) in order to pray for the people of Japan."
Person H: "I think I used up my year's quota of natural disaster media coverage in the Queensland floods."
Person L: "I am in tragedy overload and cannot bear to watch it. It's not entertainment and it turns my stomach when people talk about it as if it is."
I understand some of the points made in the above statements (and others I didn't bother to quote), but what turns my stomach is the image of a bunch of safe, comfortable Americans / British people / Europeans WHINING from their comfy homes about how "tough" it is to look at others' pain and suffering. THEY WON'T EVEN LOOK, they REFUSE TO SEE the faces of their brothers and sisters suffering across the world - and thus, to my mind, in a way deny or refuse to affirm the reality of that suffering. It made me think of a kid plugging her ears and willfully refusing to hear the sobbing of another kid - I don't see you; I don't hear you; therefore I won't see or hear or feel your pain or have to take any responsibility for it.
I understand that sensationalism is negative and disrespectful in itself, but I felt like saying (and please consider that I was feeling very upset about the posts at the time), "Y'all are a bunch of wusses. Suck it up and LOOK! It's not happening to YOU! The >10,000 people who suffered and died under the debris deserve better than to have a bunch of comfy foreigners hiding their eyes and 'praying for them.' Solidarity is the highest form of compassion, and sometimes allowing ourselves to experience a little secondary trauma is the right thing to do. So many people spend their energy avoiding the REALITY of suffering that they can't even confront it vicariously. SAD."
I did not stick my nose into the discussion for reasons too complicated to elaborate here, but I was so deeply bothered by the way the majority of respondents felt justified in their insistence on looking away. It's so easy to claim, I feel for people anyway even if I don't know exactly what they've been through. I can pray for them without having to understand the details of their their pain. I guess I feel it's disingenuous. Don't we have an obligation to do more than "feel for" others? Shouldn't we seek to know and understand in order for our compassion - from the root, to suffer with - to have integrity? How can we feel we have the right to just erase someone else's misery from our minds by refusing to see it? Isn't that selfish, and cowardly?
I'm not saying my point of view is necessarily right. I'm still working it out, and trying to figure out why I had such a strong reaction to this thread. Someone there shared a lovely blog post that offered a beautiful alternative to disaster-porn mentality, and I appreciated that, but I also knew that it didn't convey the experience of those who witnessed or were directly affected by the disasters, and I still couldn't shake the bothered feeling I had when I thought about people willfully refusing to see their suffering.
I'm venting it here because I am trying to make sense of my own jumbled thoughts and feelings. I suppose it's normal when the unthinkable happens to wrestle with all sorts of ideas and emotions. There are never any simple answers when it comes to human suffering, are there?