When hearing stories that tell of suffering, how do we cope with them, when we are slightly detached from them?
Today, this question came to mind in the midst of some anguish.
I just went through an unexpected, big life change and it’s naturally caused me to contemplate related areas of life. This led me to a few moments of anxiety and nearly even to despair just a few hours ago. The idea of another abrupt change like a new job or new place to live or new personal goal causes me unease, as does the idea of being “stuck”.
In any occurrence of existential contemplation, I eventually realize I have a “comfy” and pretty fortunate life. I then turn to thinking about other human experiences which are far more distressing, and I begin to think, that could happen to me. This afternoon I heard about the struggles of underpaid Angelenos in blue-collar film industry jobs. And then I watched a short film about a young woman who had been enslaved in the sex trade for two years before being rescued out of it. My mind wandered into other circumstances.
To be clear, I don’t discount or invalidate my own present pain. Instead, it’s like I’ve put corrective lenses over my near-sighted irises and instantly the tiny veins on leaves from a 20-foot tree are again visible; I’m stunned by the intricacy. There’s so much more happening outside of my fear-blind person.
So I see it: the misfortunes of others. The incidents that the word “survival” exists for. And that which storytelling thrives on. But how do I handle these kinds of stories when I’m having difficulty with what’s happening to me?
When it comes to contemporary grand Hollywood blockbusters and the New York Times bestselling books, extreme cases of suffering can be blurred or exploited. Even with authenticity, the key is that it’s a version of a story to sell it and it’s meant to grab people’s attention. (And to sell.) David Mamet in Three Uses of the Knife, a college course book that I’m re-reading now, says this:
The purpose of art is not to change but to delight.
There is no delight in the horrifying story. However, there is delight in celebrating the beautiful gift of redemption and healing. This brings us to the Tragedy Play. There is a hero. There is rescue. There is a second chance. Watch the recent film Room and that’s exactly the culminating evidence of hope – in the form of a resilient, brave little boy.
The Mamet quote is, in context, an argument against drama and art being used, or meant, for social change. Which brings me to this point: many of these stories don’t fully touch on the degree of suffering that the real-life person actually went through. No way.
We as the reader or listener have pity. And then we go home and remember it as we do our laundry, or we push it out of our minds, or we focus on the good ending. We cope with it. We do grow with it, even just a little, perhaps. What more happens with some of us?
This is not how it goes in our circles of friends and family. We have empathy. We cry with one another. The story of your life is filled with your own tragedies, and while I am healing and growing from my recent painful experience, you have yours which you’re, ideally, sharing with your loved ones. And that’s a topic for another day.