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I wish to inform you that reading about suffering is not the same as doing something about it: A Commuter's Tale
by Anthony Levin
2011-04-10 09:55:49
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I’m on the train. I’m sitting at one of those Transpenine four-seater table numbers, where you face strangers as if at some moving diner. There’s a couple sitting opposite and a man beside me. I’m on the aisle. Hubby quickly goes to sleep with his mouth wide open. No drool. The man next to me is watching CSI New York on his laptop with headphones. He’s in a blue shirt and tie. Wifey, dressed a bit like a nurse, sitting diagonally opposite, is reading ‘We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families’ by Philip Gourevitch – a book that was on my reading list last term as part of a Masters course called Conflict, Memory and Resistance. Other than people from my course, I have never seen anyone else reading this. Even then, it was only a secondary reading text and many of the people in my course never even read it, including me (I skimmed). The subtitle is: Stories from Rwanda. It’s about the massacre of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 1994.

I am not feeling well. Two days ago, I returned from Poland, having visited Auschwitz-Birkenau (among other death camps), where many of my relatives perished, where my grandmother survived - barely. On some psychosomatic level, the trip has taken its toll. But the loss, grief and ersatz-suffering I feel is the subject of a separate essay. Suffice to say I have now somehow internalised a whole portion of inherited pain and countermemories, and turned them into aches, fever, phlegmatic cough, dizziness and other corporeal horrors. After a day of work in Bradford, it strikes me like a wall at 4pm, when I can barely get out of my chair. I walk to the train station slowly with a colleague. It’s fair to say I’m out of it. If she weren’t with me, I may well walk into a bus.

So now I’m on the train. I’m not feeling well. In fact, minutes have become torturous. I am wondering how I am going to make it through an hour of travel on a packed train. My body is shaking…aggressively. No exaggeration. Violent spasms punctuated by occasional stalls in bodily function that look like the calm before the epilepsy storm. My knees are shaking to the point of exacerbating the train’s vibrations. (Ok, that’s an exaggeration.) I am about to pass out (this is not). I don’t know why; it could be severe dehydration (even though I have been imbibing water all day like a Marathon runner at a drink’s station), or maybe it’s the present inability to lie down, foetal, and whimper. In any case, all the blood is rushing to some low place, perhaps my solar plexus. I can no longer see – except for static, am getting desperate, do NOT want to collapse in a 6 foot, 75 kilo heap in the aisle among shined shoes and heeled boots causing shock and discomfort and perhaps an Emergency Stop and unnecessary calls to 999, so through a haze of grainy static-y vision I lean across the table and say in a gentle, polite voice that still sounds surround-sound: “Excuse me, do you have any water?” I ask the woman specifically because I think she might be more sympathetic.

“No, sorry, we were just saying that we don’t.”

I don’t remember her just saying this. She returns to her reading. Hubby is virtually mummified in sleep. I can see dead people.

I do the only thing I think might prevent me from slumping into the aisle: fold my arms on the table, taking up more room than my ticket warrants, and place my head down slowly on top. I narrowly avoid the blackness and the falling. Blood returns, along with vision, but I keep my eyes closed. Comfortable is where I would like to be, but am not. I’m surviving one might say. Or at least that’s how it feels. When we hit Leeds – the middle point of the journey – I raise my head to see if I might wake up into a better feeling. I can’t slump on the table anymore because my neck is hurting. I lean back. The convulsions return, even stronger than before. They start from low down and shudder up to my shoulders. A whole body pulse. A feat of internal air-bending. I am a breakdancer doing the sedentary worm. I cross my arms tightly across my chest to confine my body – more out of embarrassment than anything else. I am worried people will think I am some strung out, pre-hit junkie who stole an Italian trench coat.

No one asks me if I’m ok, even though you can see me shaking from the end of the carriage. Not Dead Guy, not Mister CSI, not Ms Casual Interest in Genocide. Even in my state, I am appalled at the lack of human care. A woman is reading about the death of thousands, hacked into death by collective madness, a moving account page by page, filled with the testimonies of those who suffered and cried out for help and found their cries met only by silence, global and local. She does not even look at me, even though I occasionally search for her eyes, seeking in a potential locking of eyes the signs that she is wondering inwardly about my well-being. Our eyes never meet.

I am not comparing my fever to victims of genocide. But I do become acutely aware of a paradox of human nature that relates to empathy for suffering of all kinds.

Earlier in the day, I forwarded an email to the group of people with whom I travelled to Poland. It consisted of a general Thank you, lovely to meet you, but it also attached an article by the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof, entitled “Save the Darfur Puppy” (10 May 2007), opining on how humans are motivated to help those suffering elsewhere in the world. According to psychological findings, we are more likely to donate money to a cause if the cause is pitched as the plight of a single person, rather than two, or even thousands. Thousands suffering, dying, starving? We just aren’t very moved. But little Riko or Tabu or Ravi – and this sucker is gonna reach deep into his pocket and dig out some serious kwan.

Charities know about this research and they work it when designing their appeals and advertising campaigns. How many starving Africans have you seen who are now sitting emaciated in your memory like permanent retinal burn? Are they sitting alone or in groups? Near-death? Mostly children, right?

But the research doesn’t tell us the whole picture. Because if it were simply true that single instances of suffering moved us, then the homeless would never sit with empty palms and rattling styrofoam cups outside Starbucks. We’d all be dropping fivers streaked with tears.

But this does not happen. We all know what’s it’s like to walk right past a homeless person without so much as a reflexive twitch towards our wallets. We have walked over sleeping/dying/drunken men; we say ‘No’ before beggars even reach ‘me’, somewhere in the middle of ‘Excuse’. We are shaking our heads, deviating wildly from our important trajectories, averting our eyes, shamelessly confessing our empty pockets which are really full, shamefully hiding our half-eaten sandwiches.

The reason is simple: we want our suffering visible but inaccessible. We want to spectate on and donate to pain, but not reach out to it. As long as pain is at arm’s length and singular, our empathies are active. But if it’s in your face-across the table-need-some-water-might-faint-in-a-heap-could-be-dead-or-maybe-just-drunk-but-you-wont-find-out-unless-you-come-closer pain, or masses-of-faceless-emaciated-other-illusion-of-proximity pain, then we shut down. Empathy is a tide afraid of the sand.

Was it obvious that I was in pain, unwell, behaving unusually? I’d say so. I haven’t been on a train with the flu or a fever before, and I haven’t myself seen someone else in the early throes of that awful immuno-Bitch, but I can imagine that if I had or did, and that person had specifically gathered the fortitude (physical and moral) to ask for water from a stranger, knowing such a request would be perceived as an imposition, as an admission of weakness, of vulnerability and of potential infection – an imposition to both drink another’s water but also to taint it – I would have realised the predicament and done something more than hide behind my book about suffering.

After a few more pages, Wifey actually feigned sleep too. Mr CSI didn’t budge, except to sidle away from me when I coughed blood on his shirt. Oops. But when I finally staggered out of my seat in York, I accidentally placed my hand atop his on the back of the chair, in order to support my own weight and prevent careening into the window, in response to  which he snatched out his hand as if from the grip of the Village Leper.


I’ve decided that one of my theories about human nature is now justifiable fact – a case of divine praxis: It’s the smallest derogations from human decency that are the beginnings of the greatest atrocities.

Get it on a t-shirt.

Being indecent and being genocidal are structurally related concepts.  A grand claim, I know, but hear me out.

One’s capacity to disregard a whole human life is proportionate to one’s capacity to ignore another person’s well-being. ‘Disregard’ or ‘indifference’ involve questions of degree. We rob each other of dignity, not with the violence of the movie theatre, but with the violence of everyday selfishness, inadvertence - the perfunctory behaviours, the minor systemic complicities – like jostling for a seat on the bus, leaving dirty plates for others to clean up, small insults, denigrations, consumptions – these all accumulate; they leave us feeling angry and disconnected, when really, it is the perpetrator who is demonstrating an abject failure of empathy. And it is this same abject failure that underlies all the coldest murders, the mass killings, the exterminations. The capacity to dehumanise does not discriminate between the girth or gravity of a task; it can be as adept at robbing someone of dignity during, say, co-habitation, as it can during war. The dehumanising function – perhaps a defining feature of modern man - is at the root of the Will to Comfort. It is a path of least resistance phenomenon. We could call this function ‘empathic failure’, but before we do we have to ask, what is its cause? How does a human, of the same mineral and amino-composition as another, cease to see another human? How does he feel human and at the same time see baseness and animalism and essential compositional difference? Does he not risk his own humanity?

The answer may lie in the dehumanisation of self. Before there is integration of people, before there is similarity and kinship, there is alienation from and dis-integration of Self. It does not necessarily begin this way, for babies do not know how to be bigoted or racist (though they do know how to be biologically selfish). Over time, a child acquires notions of difference. Through the smallest encroachments, she learns that Self is violable. Self is capable of being fragmented – usually by others – by their failures, cruelties, ignorance, inadvertence. A child thus learns that the Self is not whole; it can be hurt, broken, traumatised. This rift, between perception of wholeness and the First Trauma, is what causes the initial dis-integration. Self cannot be completely controlled, and so it must be suppressed, at least in parts. Those aspects of self that are inchoate must be stylised into separate dysfunctions that constitute modes that must be identified and then overcome. With the considerable effort of self-consciousness, the suppressed parts can be, throughout one’s life, slowly turned over and reintegrated. But we hardly ever reach them all. Many stones are left fixed in their mud. They slink down, some below the surface, never to be dug up again. Personal psychology, which is archeology, is only as effective as history. What do we know about this topography? What do we know about the culture of our forebears? How do we know where to dig? Engrained in our muds are ancestral repressions too – call them in utero echoes, anthropological stains – and we must excavate these along with our pebbles and stones, in order to grasp our truly composite nature. We must risk digging in places that hold no promise; we must sing paeans when we strike metal in the ground (not only djinn lamps); we must wipe our brow of sweat with a smile when our spades lift only dirt for our graves. For in the end, Death awaits as the Indiscriminate End.

So we must dig. And turn dirt. Sift gold from our excremental work. For all these stones and coins were dropped from our own pockets. And when we regather our burdens, and dust the hard jackets, one by one, with nothing but our finger tips and our spit – we will be human again.

*                                  *                                  *

I’m feeling better now, thanks. Reached home ok. Got some meds. Thank God for NHS. Never mind the cab driver who picked me up from outside York Hospital a day later.

Dramatic reconstruction:

-          Hey mate, you waiting for Anthony?

-          Yeah.

-          Great, that’s me. Do you mind waiting just two minutes while I go inside to grab something?

[Nods, looks away]

[Passenger, goes to buy Ibuprofen and Paracetamol, which in his dazed and somnambulant condition, he has neglected to buy from the Hospital Pharmacy the first time whilst obtaining his script. He returns 5 minutes later with the extra drugs and gets in the cab. Cue: 30 seconds of awkward silence.]

-          You just going round the corner then? [Actor playing Cab driver stresses ‘just’]

-          Yes.

[Cab driver gives look that conveys ‘you’re wasting my time’ disgust, acquired during compulsory Taxi School Self-Righteous Soapboxing Course]

-          I wouldn’t normally take such a short trip, but I’m not well, so- [trails off]

-          [pause] Well if you’ve got germs, cough out the window.

[Opens window so that cold wind blows on pneumonic passenger]

[Montage: myriad fantasies of mobile homicide.

Jump Cut: BBC Look North News Report - “A bearded man from York killed a cab driver today using a box of penicillin. It took paramedics an hour to remove the box from the driver’s throat…”]

*                      *                      *

Cognitive dissonance is healthy, even functional - a natural protection against feelings of frustration and compassion fatigue. The tsunami of want is equaled only by the dearth of alms. Too much pain convinces empathy to hibernate for a long winter.

But it is also a false paradigm, built on a false assumption: ‘I can’t make a difference. I am only one.’

The belief in separation is collectively (and wrongly) held. Singularity written into mass thinking. A Community of Exile. Uniform isolationism. Subjective truth transformed into objective lie.

To change it requires only ‘I can’ to be born a ripple and grow as a wave.

Belief: the rainbow reef where the power of waves is born.

An act of conscience, which might just be reaching out across a table, is nothing extraordinary. Or maybe it is. But don’t be fooled by people reading on trains. It’s not what you read about. It’s whether you can put down your book.


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Get it off your chest
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Alan2011-04-10 13:10:28
Excellent story

Eva2011-04-10 23:47:30
Agreeing with Alan.

Romaisa2011-04-11 15:21:33
York passengers eh, what are they like!?!?! A moving story.

Wicks2011-04-15 00:51:15
Great article...loved it!

Miss L.D.S2011-04-26 19:46:04
Very interesting article! I am wondering how your story may have been different if in another country? Australia perhaps? Can we put all of humanity in one bundle, or is there room for 'kinds' or 'types' of people? The Brits are known for keeping their heads down in public. In case G-d forbid, they might be subject to a...dare i say "human moment". Shame.
I remember learning in psychology class at University that if something happens to someone in public, stats show that ppl are unlikely to help because they 'assume' that someone else will. If there is no one else around, then they are more inclined to offer a hand. But hey, what do i know? Im the girl that walks past homeless people and gives away my beloved Dairy Milk chocolate or apple.

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