Monday, March 14, 2011

On Suffering

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?


Dragonfly said...

Great post.

Margaret Polaneczky, MD (aka TBTAM) said...

Thank you so much for that link to the foreigner's perspective on the Japanese. Their viewpoint seems so refreshing, so sensible, so wise.

rlbates said...

Well said, T.

mw said...

Hmmm. I love your starting paragraph ("if the earth were uninhabited...") but I disagree with your judgment that it's cowardly and selfish not to look at photos of other people's devastation or tragedy.

In fact, I think some people get off on other people's tragedies, on the salient details, the graphic images -- and feel a bit smug and contented with the comparison that can be drawn between the other's miserable state and my then relatively happy/successful state.

I think person A's response is viable. It can be hard to look at a scene of violence or horror or misery. (I can't look at dogs that have been tortured, e.g.,) I think it's also a viable response /to/ look, when you're seeking to understand, empathise, help in some way. Person C and Person H, however, strike me as seeking to protect themselves more than seeking to open themselves -- but for some people, sometimes, that may be the best they can do right then.

To your main point, I think: You say "How can we feel we have the right to just erase someone else's misery from our minds by refusing to see it?" I think we can have compassion for another because we have experienced the /feelings/ that they experience -- the horror, the longing, the sadness, the confusion, the anger, or whatever mix of emotions it is -- no matter what the situation that leads to those feelings. We may not even sometimes know the situation that leads to a human or an animal feeling downtrodden or terrified, much less see the video. That doesn't mean we can't feel what they feel and care about it, does it?

T. said...

I think that "seeking to protect themselves more than seeking to open themselves" is what I found so grating - yet I HAVE DONE IT MYSELF, I know, so maybe I am also angry at myself for failing to live up to a standard of compassion and solidarity, and willingness to connect to others, that I want to uphold.

I also must admit that I am influenced by the recent behavior of certain melodramatic individuals who figuratively fan themselves or put the backs of their hands to their foreheads over news articles, photos, or even song lyrics and express an, "Oh, it's all too much for me, I can't take it" attitude. What can't they take? That bad stuff is happening to someone ELSE? That it hurts, physically and emotionally hurts, to know about it, hear it, see it? Well, YEAH it hurts, it's SUPPOSED to hurt, and it's that hurt that enables true solidarity. It's our moral calling to, as you describe it, seek to understand / empathize / help, and that's exactly what use of the media is for - and NOT that awful other thing you describe, the self-aggrandizing smugness of the perversely fascinated.

I am well aware that what we react to or want to criticize so strongly outside of ourselves is the demon within us we see reflected back to us. I think my strong feelings on this subject are making me pay attention to my own darkness as well as seek the healing light to dispel it.

T. said...

I'm realizing, too, that my perspective may be warped by both my profession and my faith tradition.

In so many professions - medicine, ministry, social work, relief work, law enforcement, civil service, teaching, law - we enter into a commitment to see suffering up close every day, multiple times a day, for a living. To touch it with our bare hands, sometimes quite literally. It's our job. We have to be willing to step up and do it, unflinchingly.

Many people in my tradition, too (and others I'm sure) consider it their (spiritual) "job" to confront suffering first-hand, to wipe the tears from people's faces and embrace them in their brokenness and pain.

So basically the message I get from both these spheres is that we're all supposed to be there for each other, be physically and emotionally present for one another, when suffering hits. IT'S. OUR. JOB. It's what human beings should be doing.

So when I see or hear "OMG, I can't take it" referring to SECONDARY trauma, in the back of my mind a voice wants to cry, " BUT IT'S YOUR JOOOOOOOOOBBBBBBB!!!!!"

As I wrote earlier: I am still working all this out in my mind and heart. Work in progress.

T. said...

Check out this related post at,

with a timely quote by Sontag:

"...But there is shame as well as shock at looking at the close-up of a real horror. Perhaps the only people with the right to look at images of suffering of this extreme order are those who could do something about it - say, the surgeons at the military hospital...or those who could learn form it. The rest of us are voyeurs, whether or not we meant to be..."

Problem is, I think the category "those who could learn from it" covers just about EVERYBODY - or should, at any rate.

mw said...

Perhaps those who are saying, "No it hurts too much, I'm overwhelmed by other people's suffering," are feeling pain and are overwhelmed ... both by what they see, and imagine based on their own experiences and feelings, and because, as you touch on, they feel compelled to fix it, to DO something about it, and they know they can't do something about everything.

Used to be, a century or two ago, that humans pretty much knew only about the suffering we could do something about (and in medical cases, that might have done more harm than good but at least we felt we were DOING or LEARNING something). Now, we know about seemingly endless amounts of suffering. I think most people do FEEL it, as fellow beings, and I think some, for a variety of reasons, have a higher tolerance for the pain, confusion, shame, feelings of powerless to help, and so on.

My spouse and I are spending a lot of time in hospitals and with the medical profession lately due to his serious illness, and it seems to me that some people in that profession deal with the ongoing suffering, and their (shame/grief about their?) inability to do much about a lot of it, by hardening themselves, by closing themselves. Not by denying that suffering exists -- which I don't think any of your example People did either -- but by dealing with patients as diseases or as appointments or as things to fix instead of as people. Obviously, as you know, there are also those who don't do this, who manage to maintain a human-to-human connection.

I think the very thing you mention, T, that now we could theoretically DO something about, or LEARN something from, every instance of suffering, only makes the desire to shut down in the face of it stronger. We Westerners are a culture that strives to learn, to grow, to better ourselves ... if we can potentially learn something from all suffering, then the unspoken message becomes that we need to spend more time either observing or enduring suffering, in order to learn and grow. And most of us recoil from that idea.

T. said...

MW, I have learned so much from both of your comments. Thank you for your wisdom and exemplary compassion.

Jo said...

My thoughts on this:
There are times when I get almost into an overload phase. I have spent the last three weeks almost constantly on the verge of tears, even when things have been going well. How dare I be happy when people in Christchurch, and latterly, Japan, are suffering so much? How dare I be getting on with my life, going to orchestra, preparing for the next concert, when so many will never again be able to do the things that they loved?

The feeling of helplessness is overwhelming; I have done what I can for the Christchurch Earthquake appeal - I have donated money and time (my work has needed people to help out towards the disaster recovery up here in Wellington), and I am sure that the buckets will be rattling for Japan next week. But I know that there is more that I should be doing (should I really be playing hockey on Sunday rather than volunteering for the work call centre? How can I justify putting my savings to one side for our house deposit when others have lost everything?), and it is getting too much to bear.

And so, for now, I do shut my eyes. I watch DVDs rather than the news. I cannot keep on looking for the sake of my own sanity. It is not callousness on my part that says "I can no longer look", but more the fact that I can only take in so much pain and suffering at once.

Susan said...

A fascinating post. I think that in countries such as the USA, the average person is so rarely personally confronted with tragedy that they don't know how to behave in the face of it. I am glad we don't live with the child mortality rates from 100 year ago or more, but as a mother who has had a young child die of cancer, every once in a while I wonder what it would be like for me if I wasn't such a minority? I have seen the fear in the eyes of other playgroup moms. I have felt the feeling that, like those pictures of Japan, these women wished they didn't have to see me, and what I represent. I keep hoping that our culture starts swinging away from avoidance of grief and death and starts trying to understand it and destigmatize those who have experienced it.