This post is in response to an article shared with me by a good friend. The other posts in this series are The Experience of Pain; Pain in our Culture; Suffering and Character; and The Redemption of Pain.
One of the things that struck me most when reading the article was the impact on me of seeing my experience through a sympathetic outsider’s eyes. I’m used to seeing my life through the eyes of people or groups who don’t believe me; who think that I, along with many other people with chronic illness, am simply not incapacitated by my illness. It is touching to see someone respond with kindness.
A similar emotion was evoked when the BBC reported recently, on its 6 o’ clock news, that the UN had declared the UK to be in breach of disabled people’s rights. This isn’t surprising to anyone who knows what’s going on, because internationally it is only considered acceptable to remove support from people who need it if all other avenues for reducing government spending and increasing tax collection have been fully explored. Clearly, in a country where many taxes have been reduced and spending on expensive vanity projects such as HS2 and Hinkley Point continues, this is not the case. The cuts to social security are therefore necessarily a breach of rights.
It was good to see the issue make it onto the 6 o’ clock news, and at the same time so strange and distressing to hear the newsreaders talk about my people. It’s simultaneously dispersonal – the newsreaders have no connection with what they report on and leave it behind them when they leave the office – and yet affirming that we matter enough – or the issue has got so bad! – that we count as news worthy. But then distressing again that it’s taken so long and so much just to get news editors attention, and then only for an evening.
This article was slightly different; for the author, it clearly wasn’t a one-0ff interaction with suffering, but is something he has considered deeply and is concerned about. That in itself is an encouragement, particularly in a country where disinterest in the plight of sick and disabled people is high.
Moving on to the topic of this blog post.
I think there are two forms of hard-heartedness. There is the hard-heartedness of ignorance, typically of middle or upper class Westerners towards poor Westerners. It’s the hard-heartedness that can’t comprehend Western poverty because it has never experienced it, and through a twist of psychology – that we all naturally attribute our success to our hard work not luck, and therefore others’ poverty to their moral failings – insists that poverty is the poor person’s fault. In this scenario, which is also supported by neo-classical economics and neo-liberal/right-wing politics, it is right to leave poor people in their suffering, because it is this and only this which will stimulate them to work.
The other form is bitterness. This is what happens when people suffer and are not comforted. In the best scenario, comfort and succour are given by other people. These people then respond to the love they are shown by loving others. In a different scenario, people find their own comfort in the form of harmful coping mechanisms – drink, drugs, over-eating, under-eating, cutting and other forms of self-harm. When these people do finally receive help from others, they are humbled by their recognition of their own weakness, and this too leads them to want to help others in similar situations.
But some people receive no comfort and permit themselves no comfort. They pride themselves on their brave face and stoicism. But it does not work. To deny to the world the pain you feel inside is only doable when you are denying the same pain to yourself. You have to bury it deep inside, typically under layers of hard work, tough love and can-do attitudes. But the toughness you show yourself ends up being all that you have to offer other people when they suffer. These people, faced by your implacable toughness, either ‘fail’ and turn to self-harm or ‘succeed’ and become hard themselves. The result is a community of silent sufferers, bitter in the trap they have made for themselves and hard-hearted towards those in need.
It is said that when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. But if you leave out the water and sugar, all you have is a sour drink that makes you sour, and sours the lives of the people you give it to. A bit of hardship in a life that has all the necessities and many luxuries turns a sickly-sweet drink into something pleasant and refreshing. But hardship on its own is worse than no hardship at all. If nothing else, you need the sweetness of people who care about you and love you and give you all the help they can to keep the sourness of suffering from embittering your personality. The result is a community of people who support and care for one another, turn and turn about, each offering support to others as they need it and receiving it in turn in their own need.