Tuesday, December 15, 2015

On this painful existence

I did not stir out of my home in California for two days after the fateful events on September 11th, 2001.  I even skipped attending the back-to-school events, including the president's address in which he referred to a research project in which I was the lead researcher.  I was exhausted from thinking about the families whose loved ones had jumped to death out of the flaming buildings, the ones who were trapped inside, the ones in the planes, the fire and rescue personnel, ... the losses were acutely personal to me, even though I had not known even one of the dead or injured.

It was a replay of similar emotions after the Christmas tsunami. The Fukushima earthquake and the tsunami. The mass shooting in Oregon.  The recent rains and floods in Chennai. And a lot more.

I feel for the people at such events.  And then I worry that my empathy levels could become unhealthy--or worse, that it already is.

Compared to those events around the world, my troubles seem so trivial.  I have to remind myself my daughter's pragmatic suggestion years ago, of which she perhaps has no memory.  She matter-of-factly told me that a person's problems were important and huge to that person.  Whatever the problems might be.  End of story.

The psychotherapy column in the NY Times has that same bottom-line as well: "Got First-World Problems? Don’t Feel Guilty."
Focusing on your hurt feelings because a cousin didn’t invite you to her bridal shower can easily appear shallow if you place it in the context of African genocide or refugees drowning in the Aegean Sea.
The therapist advises not to feel guilty that your hurt feelings take priority over those catastrophic global issues.
If we allowed every mass tragedy to affect us deeply, we would soon suffer from empathy overload. Most of us would agree that having empathy for other people is a good thing, a core human capacity that supports morality and civilization. But it’s also possible to have too much of a good thing. Empathy has a downside when it makes you ashamed of what matters to you, or when it distracts you from other important emotions of your own.
If we didn't feel hurt and angry and frustrated in our daily lives that are peaceful and rich, then I suppose we would not be truly human experiencing the emotions that make us human.  But, of course, we do not want to live a selfish life that is shut off from all those problems either.  A fine balance between empathy and selfishness is what we need.

A similar issue pops up in a column about life after the catastrophic rains and floods in Chennai.  The author, a Chennai resident, writes:
There was a family celebration recently, a zero-number birthday, and we went out, had dinner at a nice place. The money I spent, I didn’t feel... guilty about it, exactly. After all, some of my money has found its way to relief organisations. And we can’t stop living, right? Life goes on, right? But when I handed over my credit card, I felt weird. I think I understood — rather, felt — for the first time what Siddhartha must have felt when he stepped out of the palace and saw people who did not have the privileges he did. Again, I’m trying not to make too big a deal about this — but these are big thoughts, big emotions. About, through some freakishly random accident, being born into a certain kind of family, having all kinds of opportunities, having the freedom to chuck a phenomenally well-paying job and pursue a maybe-it’ll-work career in another field, now living in a flat in a high-lying area that floodwaters couldn’t reach — all of which led to this evening where I’m taking a casual look at the bill and handing out my credit card.
There is empathy, yes.  But, life goes on.  Babies are born. Wedding are celebrated. Funerals are conducted. Parties are held.

All a part of the human condition on this pale blue dot.


Ramesh said...

Yes, all part of the rich tapestry of life. Of course there is empathy to varying degrees, but life's experiences, good or bad, are intensely personal. Your daughter was completely right - each one's problems and triumphs are theirs alone and almost nobody else can truly can feel the same.

Having said that , I am in complete awe of those who even risk their lives to help others. In every natural calamity, thousands of volunteers give their everything. They take huge risks themselves to mitigate the pain of others. They are the true shining stars of humankind.

Sriram Khé said...

Yes, the people who volunteer their time, money, and their own safety are the ones who give me enormous hope for humanity itself. Whether it is a natural calamity or human-triggered disasters (like wars) the very fact that regular people and professionals rush to help is immensely encouraging.
Realizing my own limitations--other than blabbering ideas, I am good for nothing--I figured years ago that the best way I can contribute is to donate to the helpers. For the last couple of years I have been donating to MSF (Doctors Without Borders.)

Anne in Salem said...

Perhaps the issue is action. We have empathy for those halfway round the world after tsunamis and terrorist bombings, but most of us can't do anything about such events, other than donate money. When the problem is personal, we dwell on it, attempting to solve it or prevent recurrence. Since most people live a very out-of-sight, out-of-mind existence, it takes a disaster to wake us up and draw us out of ourselves and our narrow perspective. We have to have both.

For example, we have had significant rain here, triple the monthly average in just the first 11 days. Roads are closed; fields are saturated so farmers and field workers can't work; buildings are flooding so businesses aren't open, etc. I work in my warm, dry office and am tempted to whine about occasionally spotty internet and driving the long way home because the short way is closed then I think of Chennai and your family and Ramesh's family and am ashamed at my complaining. At least we're still measuring in inches, not in half-meters like in Chennai. I have to focus on my problem because I have to drive home safely and I have to do my job so that others can do their jobs, but empathy for the families in India keeps me in check.

Sriram Khé said...

We humans are strange that in our daily lives "it takes a disaster to wake us up and draw us out of ourselves and our narrow perspective." But then that is also why we continue to live and prosper--otherwise the empathy will kill us..

If I understand the NY Times therapist's column, the idea is that it is ok for you to whine about the long way home and the spotty internet. To complain about those first world problems is ok--we are human and we are better off expressing such emotions. But, as long as we are not preoccupied with our own tiny little problems when there are the many Chennais happening all over the world. I will go truly crazy if I were not allowed my simple pleasures of playing bridge or to express my frustration over the coffee that was not to perfection ;)

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