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Is Suffering Contagious? (“On Gratitude and Suffering,” Part III)

Avoid suffering, avoid life.

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PART III: Is Suffering Contagious?

It is possible to literally feel other people’s emotions. Sometimes vicariously, through mental anguish. Other times we literally feel people’s emotions in our bodies; as an empath that happens frequently to me. So, yes, it is possible to “catch” another person’s anger, grief or melancholy.

What we do with it says a great deal about who we are.

“When I am tempted to judge others for their suffering, I try to remember that the boundaries between disaster and good fortune are thin and unstable.”
— Deborah, writing in 1999.

Many of us avoid people who suffer, partially because we fear their suffering is contagious. Some people chatter through it. Some people walk away. Others cleverly avoid people who suffer. And others issue harsh judgments (see Part II) that let them feel superior to the sufferer, thus boosting their confidence that they will never suffer in a similar manner.

I am as guilty of this avoidance as anyone. “I have enough troubles, thank you very much, so don’t tell me about yours” is an easy protective attitude to adopt.

New Age thinking is terrible in this regard. I have heard human potential teachers advise against entering the presence of anybody with “bad energy” or “too much negativity,” because it can “pollute your energy.” “Spiritual people” who accept the advice to be around only those with “good” energy will never know the rewards of volunteering in hospitals, teaching literacy to prisoners, or aiding the mentally ill.

I believe in the premises of vibrational theory: that the human aura is made up of energy at different levels of vibration, and that one person’s energy affects that of everyone else close by, just as a plucked string of an instrument will vibrate every similarly tuned string in the room. There are many ways of strengthening your energy field to insulate yourself from negative energies, and even more ways of “re-tuning” or cleansing yourself afterward.

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It is ungenerous to not lend an ear when someone needs to talk about a problem, or to avoid whole populations of people because they suffer. It is worse when the very existence of that problem causes us to judge people uncharitably. Blues singer Bessie Smith spoke accurately of the isolation that people’s judgment of those who suffer imposes when she lamented, “Nobody knows you when you’re down and out.”

When I am tempted to judge others for their suffering, I try to remember that the boundaries between disaster and good fortune are thin and unstable. I believe it is an unwillingness to admit the tenuousness of our comforts and safety that make so many of us self-righteous in the face of other people’s suffering.

Insecurity is the foundation of victim-blaming; easier to fault the victim than to acknowledge that we, too, are subject to the vagaries of chance that can end in trauma or tragedy. Unacknowledged fear is often behind the indignant superiority of those who, when faced with another person’s suffering, criticize the sufferer’s moral fiber, strength or character. That, plus plain discomfort with any expression of emotion, are behind such derogatory yet commonplace statements as:

• “Good God, man, pull it together.”
• “No whining!”
• “I can see getting a little teary-eyed at that, but weeping in public? Please!”
• “She just broke down and wailed that she had no friends, but jeez, I considered myself a friend!”
• “Well, many other people have dealt with so much worse, so she has no right to feel that way.”

Then, of course, there are statements by speakers who claim their own pain is so much worse than other people’s, so other people should shut up and make the speaker’s pain primary. Political movements and social identities are built, and collaborations and relationships destroyed, on such postulations as “Racism/ poverty/ colonialism/ sexism/ etc./ etc. is so much worse than rape/ poverty/ violence/ etc./ etc., so keep your tears to yourself, white girl/ black woman/ Kurdish man/ etc./ etc./ etc.”

I submit that indignant superiority and an unwillingness to open to other people’s pain influence such statements as much as (or more than) political theories and principles.

Continue to Part IV/Conclusion: Are You Immune?

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