Monday, November 16, 2015

Walk It Off

On a Shabbos afternoon, I was perusing the many papers that had piled up, and noted "The Funny Thing About Adversity" by David DeSteno.
He reported that while difficulty did make sufferers more empathetic, there was one exception: When others were going through the same trial. Even though they battled the same dragon, the brain has belittled the tribulation to the point that empathy vanishes: "Walk it off." 
. . . the human mind has a bit of a perverse glitch when it comes to remembering its own past hardships: It regularly makes them appear to be less distressing than they actually were.
As a result of this glitch, reflecting on your own past experience with a specific misfortune will very likely cause you to underappreciate just how trying that exact challenge can be for someone else (or was, in fact, for you at the time). You overcame it, you think; so should he. The result? You lack compassion.
I thought that point was interesting, but I wasn't going to link it since I couldn't think of a connecting point. I then moved on to the Jewish newspapers.

The previous week, the letter of a recently divorced woman had been published, in which she expressed her feelings of isolation. She isn't invited out anymore. She feels like a pariah. 

The letters printed this week were less than sympathetic, from fellow now-single mothers. "Invite people over instead!" more than one proclaimed. "Who said you have to stay at home feeling sorry for yourself?" 

Disbelievingly, my glance darted between the two newspapers, back and forth. I just read this. A divorced woman is opening up about her loneliness, and she is flatly told by those floating in the same boat to stop being such a kvetch. 

Wait. Have I done the same thing, too? Have I also been impatient and dismissive of the hurt of others simply because their pain echoed mine?

I have this memory that still haunts me from first grade. We were having a class play; Ma had gone to visit her parents, and wouldn't be attending. Rivky began to wail that her mother wouldn't be coming. 

"So what?" I had snapped. "My mother isn't coming either, and I'm not crying." 
In separate experiments, they next exposed them to people who were expressing dejection and showing difficulty in enduring one or the other hardship. Those who had overcome more severe bullying felt less — not more — compassion for current bullying victims. Likewise, those who had faced greater difficulty with unemployment had less sympathy for the currently jobless. When the adversities didn’t match, no such empathy gap emerged.
. . . Living through hardship doesn’t either warm hearts or harden them; it does both. Having known suffering in life usually heightens the compassion we feel for others, except when the suffering involves specific painful events that we know all too well. Here, familiarity really does breed contempt.
I hope I have progressed in indiscriminate empathy since I was five.      

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