As a child, I frequently recall falling over on the pavement and scraping my knee (or just accidentally hurting myself), and feeling this wave of self-pity at the fact that it was such an unfortunate event that I had injured my poor knee and was bleeding (insert sad face)…boo hoo. This feeling of pity for my own pain was further triggered by family a member or friend rushing over to ask and see if I was okay. “Oh no, are you okay? Let me get you a bandaid” Oh the tragedy! And yes…a bandaid would be great.
But what about when we pitty and feel sorry for the “other”, i.e. someone other than ourselves? Pity for others can sometimes be a form of external validation that is based off feelings of superiority and the mentality that we are are lucky not to be in that position.
The mentality of: “If these people can go through this – then I can watch it/look at it.” – misses the point because it suggests some equivalence. Looking at suffering is NOT the same as feeling it because there is no physical pain that we feel when we view suffering. With religious art works that depict extremely grotesque deaths, looking at these depictions of suffering would stir you to devotion, reminding that your religious salvation was at stake. Looking at it is almost obligatory to help feel what the maters went through because of their devotion to God. Some may argue that looking at acts of suffering weren’t supposed to make you wish that they had ever happened; these were the destiny of maters because this suffering essentially is what turned them into saints and made them distinct from regular people. (Susan Sontag – regarding the pain of others)
Our reaction to the pain of others can differ depending on the context. Graphic and gory images of people being hung and women being raped are supposed to make us feel outraged. However, images of refugees on hunger strike, inflicting suffering on their own bodies in an act to protest the living conditions in the detention centre can be seen as disturbing and an unnecessary infliction of pain. Thus, suffering can be hidden from us through the aestheticisation of suffering. Sounds fancy right? Sometimes we start to think that the pain we feel while looking at an image makes us feel upset and humane. The danger is that it can feel good to feel so bad for someone. It confirms our own humanity in a way and makes us feel good about ourselves. “Its sweet to feel sorry” – what a good person you are for feeling so sorry! But whose pain are we emphasising on when we see someone enduring suffering – the pain of the victim or the pain of the viewer?
So what is the right thing to do? Is it wrong for us to look at someone else’s hardship and feel sorry and in return feel good about feeling sorry? Should we ignore their suffering altogether and just view it from a more emotionally detached point of view? – This seems very heartless, but in a way is this even possible to do if you are an emotional and emphatic individual? During this weeks lecture at university, we were showed a scene from the film “The Blind Side”, and were discussing the fact that sometimes we focus on the wrong persons emotions. For example, we focus on the sympathy and humanity of the giver of help rather than the person in need. This person in need has probably been through a lot of tough things, but some how we still shift our focus to the person who pities them. During the lecture I couldn’t help myself from tearing up at the movie scene, and I immediately felt a sense of self-condemnation for feeling sorry for the character in the film. I was trying so very hard to prevent myself from getting emotional. This period of swallowing back the tears eventually ended and was followed by an immediate sense of guilt. Am I really sympathising for the victim or the emotions of the helper of the victim? “I MUST NOT feel good about feeling bad, I totally do not feel good right now.” – I thought to myself. If we try to ignore the pain of others, are we denying them the witness that they deserve?
I can certainly conclude that looking at suffering is a risky thing, but it is absolutely something that we do .
BBC News. (2017). Can you teach people to have empathy? – BBC News. [online] Available at: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-33287727 [Accessed 15 Mar. 2017].
Davidson, M. (2017). Why We Sometimes Enjoy Pity and How to Stop – Tiny Buddha. [online] Tiny Buddha. Available at: http://tinybuddha.com/blog/why-we-sometimes-enjoy-pity-and-how-to-stop/ [Accessed 15 Mar. 2017].
Goo.gl. (2017). Image: Leonardo Dicaprio Cheers Meme – Imgflip. [online] Available at: https://goo.gl/images/51JM88 [Accessed 15 Mar. 2017].