Sunday, November 20, 2016

Moving from cursing others to assisting them

One stage of grief, in Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's famous schema, is bargaining. One type of bargain a person may try to strike — if only in the imagination, as such bargains usually are anyway — is that someone else could have been taken in place of the one who is grieved. This is not necessarily because they relish the suffering of others. (Some people certainly do. The character of the princess Pari said in Anita Amirrezvani’s novel Equal of the Sun: “People love to dwell on the pain of others; they love to stick their fingers in it and suck on it as if it were honey. But I won’t allow them to feed at my hive.”) They may say this in the height of emotion even if, at a more lucid and sober moment, they would not claim that one life is worth more than another. A character in Sjón's novel From the Mouth of the Whale describes it this way:

Alas, why does God allow the candle of worthless old hags to flicker, year in, year out, for nine times nine years, while abruptly and without apparent mercy blowing out the newly kindled flames of one’s own children? It is an ugly thought that everyone who has ever lost anyone has entertained, demanding in their despair: Why him? Why her? Why not that one or that one, or that other? But I cannot help it. (p. 67)

Later in the novel:

Clenching my fist, I prayed:

“Dear God, take that black-hearted knave Nightwolf Pétursson and give back to me little Hákon, who was always as gentle as a girl; merciful Father, take Ari Magnússon of Ögur and return to me quick-handed Berglind, who inherited her father’s gift for carving; heavenly Creator, take that foul-tongued slanderer, Reverend Gudmundur Einarsson, and give me back the little lad Klemens, with one moss-green eye and one blue; dear Lord, take the whole legion of good-for-nothings who every day outlive their victims, sprawling in their high seats and thrones, gorging themselves on meat, dripping with grease, format he livestock that grew fat on the green grass in meadows tended with diligence by innocent, God-fearing souls; congratulating themselves on having stripped this man of his livelihood and that woman of her breadwinner — when they can speak between ill-gotten mouthfuls; enjoying to a great old age the fruits of the wicked deeds they committed during their days on Earth with the blessing of bishops, and convinced that the despicable acts that they refer to as ‘a good day’s work in the Lord’s vineyard’ will have paid for their place in Heaven; dear God, snatch them away and do with them what you will, but give back to me Sigrídur Thórólfsdóttir, a pious woman, a loving wife, and a caring mother who never asked for anything for herself but prayed for mercy and good fortune for friends and strangers alike.

These terrible curses poured in torrents from my mouth. They were so dire that when I came to my senses I hoped that the good Lord in His mercy and deep understanding of human frailty would pretend that His great all-hearing ears had been closed in that dark hour.

Another manifestation of the preference for one life over another is the tendency to treat the deaths of multiple strangers, considered together, as a statistic. Partly this is because we are able to reason that whatever happens to large numbers of people is 'just the way the world works." The theologian Nicolas Berdyaev wrote that "the problem of evil is above all the problem of death....The tragic sense of death is connected with an acute sense of personality, of personal destiny. For the life of the race there is nothing tragic in death. The life of the race always renews itself and continues, it finds compensation for itself." Meanwhile, if a precious known few are in trouble and the bargaining game appears to have been "won," it is considered to be a miracle. As John Allen Paulos wrote in Irreligion: "Why, for example, do so many in the media and elsewhere refer to the rescuing of a few children after an earthquake or a tsunami as a miracle when they attribute the death of perhaps hundreds of equally innocent children in the same disaster to a geophysical fault line? It would seem either both are the result of divine intervention or both are a consequence of the earth's plates shifting."

We are able to be more aware of individuals about whom we can form stories and feel pain (whether empathy for their pain or our own experience of the pain of losing them). As Randall Jarrell wrote: "One writer says that we only notice what hurts us — that if you went through the world without hurting anyone, nobody would even know you had been alive." Having noticed the pain of others, we are responsible for helping them. "Pain observed is journalistic pain. It's diplomatic pain. It's television pain," wrote John Le Carre in The Constant Gardener, "over as soon as you switch off your beastly set. Those who watch suffering and do nothing about it, in her book, were little better than those who inflicted it. They were the bad Samaritans."


The character of the princess Pari, in Anita Amirrezvani’s novel Equal of the Sun. New York: Scribner, 2012.

Sjón. From the Mouth of the Whale. (2008) Translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb (2011). New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013. p. 67, 156-157.

Nicolas Berdyaev. The Divine and the Human. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1949. p 96.

John Allen Paulos. Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don't Add Up. New York: Hill and Wang, 2008. pp. 85-86.

Randall Jarrell, in the introduction to The Best Short Stories of Rudyard Kipling. ed. Randall Jarrell. Garden City, New York: Hanover House, 1961. p xii.

John Le Carre. The Constant Gardener. New York: Pocket Books, 2001. p 159.

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