Monday, July 15, 2019

Empathy of the Image of Suffering

I'm reading a biography of J. R. R. Tolkien. He fought in World War I. There's a description of trench warfare in the book: no sleep, cold, wet, people froze to death, had lice, got diseases, and when they tried to fight, mostly they just got killed, and there was chemical warfare. Tolkien lost all but two of his childhood and college friends to the war.

Tolkien was scarred by the war, but went on to be a father and husband, write books, have a career. Reading the description of World War I, I had a feeling of "how could a person live through that?" But I think I was getting caught up in the image of hardship and suffering, rather than the reality. I don't know what trench warfare is like from personal experience, so instead I imagine the way it is. To actually go through it is to have to live through it, you're living through it, you can live through it (although not everyone survived). Death is something you live through when it comes, you're living through it, in a sense you can live through it, it is something you can bear when it comes.

One of the failure modes of empathy is when it becomes about the image of someone else's suffering or hardship rather than the reality. The person who is living through it can get through it, or even die from it in an acceptable way, but the person on the side fears for them, feels pity for them, feels discouragement for them, based on the image. Cowardice or lack of self-confidence, self-pity, and a spirit of depression make it harder for a person to live through their real suffering and hardship, and can be communicated from the "empathy of the image" person to the person actually suffering.

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