Voyeurs of Suffering (May/June 2006)Friday, 01 April 2011 07:57
Openmind May/June 2006
‘Misery memoirs’ is the latest catchphrase in publishing. Ever since
Or so we are told. But does feeling emotions make us better people? An account of another person’s suffering can lead us to feel the empathy which takes us out of our own small world and into that of another person, but this doesn’t always happen. We can tell ourselves that we are feeling empathetic, and thus we can enjoy the glow of being virtuous, but at the same time the subject of our empathy can be feeling greatly misunderstood because we haven’t bothered to take the time to inform ourselves accurately about what is going on in his life and what he is feeling. Accurate empathy requires the hard work of thought and observation, and an understanding of our own limitations in being able to imagine another person’s world.
Then there is the seductive emotion of feeling superior to the person who suffers, a feeling which often comes under the guise of pity. Pitying someone you see as inferior to you has more to do with vanity than it does with genuine concern. Straightforward pity is a painful emotion, especially when there is nothing we can do to help those who suffer. Many people protect themselves from the pain of pity by blaming the victim, something that those who believe that we live in a Just World are prone to do. In a Just World good people are rewarded and bad people punished. Since nothing in a Just World happens by chance, it follows that those who suffer deserve their misery. Women who are raped were asking for it: naughty children provoke their good parents into beating them.
I have found that even in a rather irreligious country like
Important though it may be for these authors to tell their story, their books can have a deleterious effect on those whose suffering is not on such a grand and obvious scale. Readers may come to overlook such suffering. Most people can agree that a child who is beaten and starved is suffering greatly. It is much harder to imagine ourselves into the silent suffering of those who, on the surface, seem to be leading ordinary lives. It is even harder to hold in our minds the differing viewpoints of all the people involved in the lives of those who suffer and see how we all suffer and we all inflict suffering, however unwittingly.