A few weeks ago I was in Erbil and having a conversation with a guy who works for a political research firm there. I’d just got back from four days of running around IDP camps up north and was exhausted and a little bit ill from a medication I was on. I’d decided to stay back and sleep when my friends went out that night, but somehow ended up spending most of the evening up chatting with this fellow, who was extremely knowledgable about regional politics.
Toward then end, the subject of where I’d just been came up, and he wondered how my time in the camps had gone. I said it was good, but kind of emotionally exhausting, to which he replied: “Kind of makes you realize how good you have it, doesn’t it?”
I nodded, said goodnight, and then finally went off to find somewhere to sleep, but there was something in his question that seemed unsettling to me. It represents the way that almost everyone I’ve ever talked to reacts to situations of extreme suffering––and it’s a reaction that I’ve always been vaguely unsettled by. Somehow, in the few minutes before I dozed off on the floor of the adjacent room, I was able to articulate for the first time what is unsettling to me about it.
Our tendency as humans is to use ourselves as the first reference point for reality––and so see the situation of everyone else in the world through the lenses of either envy, guilt or relief. We see the problem with people who are worse off than us as being that they are worse off than us, and our problem as being that we are worse off than those who are better off.
The problem, as I see it though, isn’t that at all. It’s that the world is full of agony. And that should be cause for great sadness. Sadness for the whole world and all of us in it. That’s mostly what I feel when I find myself surrounded by relatively great suffering. To feel lucky seems somehow wrong to me. Lucky for what? That we’re all on a miserable planet, and my corner is a little bit better? That we’re all bleeding out, but I’m bleeding out a little slower?
Is pondering the fate of “all the children starving in Africa” really the answer to not wanting to eat my vegetables, and people in Afghanistan who had limbs shredded by landmines the solution to my body-image problem?
Is there not something deeply perverse about deriving a sense of thankfulness from this? Not to even speak of a sense of contentment.
I guess in some cases, this feeling might be used in a positive way––if it causes us to ask why? Or what can we do to change this? Rather than settle into awareness-based satisfaction about our vegetables and levels of attractiveness (and, in all fairness, this may have been the way the guy I was talking to meant it).
More and more good work these days is driven by ideas of “justice” and fighting “inequity”––and if the idea that there are people out there burning faster than us is a more powerful motive to give money or time or influence than the simple fact that there are people out there burning, then I won’t say anything bad about it.
Still, when I’m surrounded by, stepping over and sprayed with someone else’ suffering, I don’t think I’ll ever be capable of saying: “I now see that my world is this much brighter.” Instead I just see the world as being that much darker.
And I think realizing just how dark our world is and that we all live in it together for however brief a moment in time is, in the end, not just a reason to try and help each other when we see that we’re drowning slower than the person we’re next to, but also to try to be more generous with each other (and ourselves) in the inevitable disappointments and conflicts that we have with each other living in a world like this.