Post 20

Bystander: Reflections on the Context of Suffering

One of the components of suffering is the role played by those around us; their knowledge and reaction have an impact on what we experience, on how much we suffer.  From what I can tell, there are four different ‘states’ of the bystander: compassion, ignorance, indifference and pleasure.

Compassion: We are hard-wired for compassion, and fortunately, it’s usually the first reaction we receive in response to our suffering.  The crying baby is picked up and soothed, the child with the scraped knee is hugged, and the kindergartner is consoled and talked through their troubles.  And as grown-ups, we continue to need compassion in distress, and we learn to give it too, saying and doing the things that show we care. In walking with those who suffer, we are living the true meaning of the word compassion – ‘to suffer with.’ And when we suffer, it makes all the difference in the world to have that other person to share the suffering.  (It’s why we want to complain – we bring to life the story of the hurt, with all the gory details of what so-and-so said, and what so-and-so did.  If we have a female listener, she will probably know how to put balm on that wound; a man in this moment might do the same, or he might helpfully and reasonably point out what you could have done differently.)

Ignorance: But the most common context within which a person suffers is ignorance – people don’t know what is really going on with those around them; they don’t know the ‘real deal.’  There’s a poem by W. H. Auden: “Musée des Beaux Arts.”  He saw a painting in an art gallery by the painter Breughel.  Breughel, in turn, was inspired by the myth of Icarus, and, it seems to me, by the line referring to the simple labourers who see Icarus soaring through the air.  Breughel’s painting shows everyone going about their business while Icarus disappears from view, plunging into the water to his death.  And Breughel’s other paintings, also referred to in the poem, show the same phenomenon; normal life happens during King Herod’s massacre of innocent children (the Holy Innocents) and also while Mary and Joseph seek lodging.

Musee des Beaux Arts

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

I find this contrast to be very noticeable in the context of a hospital.  Inside people are fighting the fight of their lives, and family members wait, and wait, and then intently watch the doctor’s expression as he delivers the news, but then when you step outside, you see that everyone is going about their business, completely oblivious to all the life dramas unfolding inside that building, stories that won’t make the evening news.

And it’s normal that we don’t know everything that’s happening around us, or even with the people that we think we know.  I read somewhere that St. John Vianney, the Curé d’Ars, who used to spend hours upon hours hearing confessions, said, almost as a summary of what he knew about human nature, that “People are much sadder than they appear to be.”  How true!  For the most part, we hide our sufferings from each other.  We hide our disappointments, our addictions, our struggles, and our sins.  Instead, we present a façade of cheerfulness and carefreeness.

And so, is it any wonder that some people feel that they are the only ones with such-and-such a problem?  I laughed when a friend wished she had a normal relationship with her parents, “like other people do”! Yes, she actually said that! And one time DiligentOne was saying how different it would be if everyone wrote out signs naming the type of struggle they have, and put these signs on their front lawn.  You could walk from house to house, and you’d say, “Hey, look, we’re not the only ones dealing with dealing with bankruptcy / addiction / abuse / chronic illness / disputes about inheritance / etc.” Because people don’t reveal their problems, they think their problems are much rarer than they are.

Truly, we should remember that every person with whom we interact is fighting hidden battles.  For the most part, we’ll never learn what these troubles are, but honest conversations do happen, and the more such conversations you have, the more you find that everyone is dealing with a few issues at any given time, and these issues are not radically different from one person to the next; it’s more like variations on a theme.

Indifference: The third context is indifference.  The more our culture becomes self-absorbed, the more people will find that the disclosure of their problems does not yield the response they were hoping for.  Instead of compassion, their plight is met with indifference.  People know something of your troubles, but for one reason or another, they don’t want to hear more, and they are not moved to action.   They are wrapped up in their own world, and they don’t want to ‘get involved.’  And I’m convinced that the more affluent the community, the less inclined people are to care.  But having said that, indifference isn’t unique to the suburbs of North America.  In the story of the good Samaritan, there were the others, who kept on walking.

Pleasure: So ignorance is pretty typical and indifference hurts, but the most painful context is that of pleasure: sometimes bystanders take pleasure in your suffering.  Consider the Christians who were brought out into the Coliseum.  Their death was a source of amusement, fascination and entertainment for the Romans attending.  (But of course not all the people felt that.  The steadfast faith of these early Christian martyrs was on public display, and it was a statement that these Christians valued something – Someone – more than life itself.)

But I’ve wondered how it must have felt to be surrounded by thousands of people who have no compassion for your suffering, who are watching so intently but with no desire to rescue you.  If you were drowning, struggling in the water, you would have been so relieved to see another person; here is succour!  To see another human face is to see your rescuer!  But here, at the Colisseo, there’s not only one face, but a sea of faces, and they all see you, but they have no compassion upon you; no, they are looking forward to watching you die.

And so it was.  But where I’m going is to say that the same thing is repeated every day, every minute of every day.  The sad truth of it is that so often people take pleasure in the sufferings of others.  They are not ignorant, and they are not indifferent: they enjoy this trouble that you have.  They want details, not because they feel compassion, but because it adds to their enjoyment.

It’s everywhere.  People enjoy hearing about the rich and famous who suffer; these stories sell.  And the media coverage of people suffering in war, persecution or from natural disasters reach a diverse audience; some watchers are dismayed and full of compassion, but other people just find it plain interesting.

And if you introduce an element of dislike, then the enjoyment factor increases: you feel somehow, that it’s alright, or even fair, or good, that so-and-so has finally gotten their comeuppance.

Or if you introduce an element of jealousy, then again, the enjoyment factor increases: they always had things so good, or so easy, and so this problem seems to level the playing field, and seems right somehow.

And this type of pleasure is also a big factor with lust – many types of pornography are based on watching another person being treated badly (and what a sorrowful thing it is when men, who have in their DNA the predisposition to protect, are drawn into this addiction).

It fascinated me when I learned that the German language has a word for the pleasure that comes from the misfortune of others: schadenfreude – how insightful into the human condition!

Even people who are trying to live holy lives are guilty of it.  When they hear that some wrongdoer has finally gotten his ‘just desserts,’ do they feel compassion or do they feel glad?  Is there a part of them that rejoices in the suffering?  And I don’t think that at that moment they are thinking of the sanctifying value of suffering through participation in Christ’s suffering for the wrongdoer!  No, it’s something a little less lofty that is kicking in right then: they are enjoying the thought of that suffering because revenge appeals to our fallen nature.

And of course, our reactions to the sufferings of others have many permutations, where we mix a bit of ignorance with pleasure, or indifference or whatever.  But at the end of the day the Golden Rule is still the fastest way to check whether our response is right: if I were in that difficult situation, what reaction would I want from others?

Compassion (n) mid-14c., from Old French compassion “sympathy, pity” (12c.), from Late Latin compassionem (nominative compassio) “sympathy,” noun of state from past participle stem of compati “to feel pity,” from com- “together” (see com-) + pati “to suffer”

[May 27, 2015]