Are we hungry for human suffering or have we become inured to it?
Witnessing someone else break down in front of our eyes can be so unsettling we may be unsure how to react or even whether we should. As shock subsides, curiosity might take its place and some amount of staring could be unavoidable as we try and get a read of the situation.
For some of us, remaining present while figuring out how to engage means pushing back against our urge to recoil and run away. In a society focused on productivity at all cost, there’s no place for frailty or malfunctions. Emotional overwhelm is frowned upon, an unwelcome reminder that to be human is to be vulnerable.
Instead, we’re encouraged to repress our emotions and keep a tight grip on our feelings.
And yet, when there’s a living, breathing, hurting being in front of us, they probably need us to acknowledge their distress. Much as the sight of them might scare, disturb, or even repulse you, please don’t shrug, turn your back on them, or both.
Not knowing what to do is a standard and understandable reaction but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do anything. Because there’s zero chance our apathy will dispel whatever is upsetting them.
Instead, it could complicate matters further.
You will be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Every now and then, our shared humanness makes us all innocent witnesses to very private turmoils playing out in public.
Whoever the distraught person is, we needn’t even know them personally to offer solace. All it takes is the ability to remember we are all the same underneath the skin.
Granted, that is easier said than done, especially in cultures where touch can be misconstrued as an invasion of personal space.
Even though we should never think twice about placing a well-meaning hand on a shoulder or offering a hug, many of us do. This is a measure of how disconnected humans have become from one another, how litigious the society we’ve created is, and how cold we can all be.
Communication can fix this. Ask for permission to approach if you feel that is the appropriate course of action or simply make your presence known. Whether your words are “Do you need a hug?” or “I’m right here if you want to talk”, they show care and concern.
Even an awkward “Are you OK?” is better than silence.
And don’t worry about your words coming out wrong; few of us know what to say when faced with sudden distress. Say nothing and do nothing instead and both the person in front of us and their pain get erased although they’re still very much there.
How would you like to become invisible?
Fellow feeling isn’t a luxury, it’s what holds society together.
Without it, we can neither survive nor thrive, no matter how self-sufficient we fancy ourselves, no matter how hard we try. To pretend otherwise is to deny our innate need for validation, for human warmth, for the companionship of our peers.
At the same time, many of us have grown more guarded than ever to protect hearts that may already have suffered a great deal in the past. But rather than detract from our basic humanity, why can’t personal experience help us interact with one another better?
If you already know how much life can hurt when you least expect it then what is this knowledge worth when you choose not to apply it?
Even though it has become commodified for clicks and bucks, human pain isn’t a spectacle any more than distress is a performance.
Thankfully, failure to react or assist when privy to another’s suffering isn’t a human trait yet but it could become one if we keep withdrawing from situations that call for empathy and compassion because we don’t know what to do.
Even when the mind comes up short, the heart never does.
Why not let it guide us?
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.