Sunday, March 13, 2011
No Greater Sorrows
There is a wonderful scene in the film Nell in which Jodie Foster’s character is the subject of a hearing to decide whether she needs to be institutionalised. (Nell is a woman who has grown up in a remote wooded area with no human contact apart from her disabled mother, who has a severe speech deficit from a stroke. As such Nell speaks her own unique language and has difficulty integrating into society after she is discovered by authorities after her mother dies.) A doctor (played by Liam Neeson) who has learnt to communicate with her, acts as her interpreter. In exhorting the review board to let her be and let her live her life contentedly as before, Nell urges:
Don’t cry for Nell… I have no greater sorrows than yours.
I’m aware that the words “Don’t cry for [me]” are already famous, but I’m definitely not wanting to evoke images of a certain Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. I’m referring to our clumsy capacity as human beings to confuse sympathy with empathy.
The doctors and psychologists and social workers argue that Nell is emotionally traumatised and socially retarded, needing specialised care. They see Nell as a problem to be solved. The wolf-child, as it were, who must be civilised. And not gently either. Granted, the film is deliciously manipulative in showing us Nell living a life of Arcadian seclusion in the stunning wilds of the Pacific Northwest. But the film doesn’t paint the establishment as a totalitarian regime either – indeed, Liam Neeson’s character is a down-to-earth, strait-laced GP who acts as a bridge between Nell and the outside world. Nell’s character is lucky, because we have a Hollywood ending. In reality she would have ended up at best as a “special needs” social case and no doubt as someone’s PhD thesis. Yet her exhortation to her would-be “protectors” haunts me: I have no greater sorrows than yours. So don’t feel sorry for Nell, don’t cry for her. Try to understand, yes. Co-exist, yes. But that is, we know, so much trickier than “solving” a problem.
Clashes between worlds are inevitable, but I think the reasons can differ. Evil aside, often we act out of fear, sometimes out of sympathy; I put it to you that results can be similar: tragic. The road to hell isn’t paved with good intentions for nothing. Sympathy is all too often clinical; when faced with someone in circumstances other than our own, we convince ourselves that we can feel the same things as that person, yet assume we know better because our reasoning is superior. I don’t have to elaborate on the myriad examples at my disposal: wars, genocides, oppressions of peoples that in so many instances began as misguided forms of protection. Just think of the protectorates the British Empire founded. (Who or what did Bechuanaland need protection from?!)
Empathy yields better results - but this is only, of course, accessible to those who have undergone similar circumstances. When my father died there was the obvious reverberation of the words “I’m so sorry” around me. While I am eternally grateful for all the support my family received, the words that will always remain with me are from my cousin, who simply said: “You don’t have to be strong. Just feel what you need to feel.” As it happened, I was numb while everybody else seemed openly grief-stricken, sobbing and keening. Everybody thought I was so “brave”. Later I convinced myself I was a cold-hearted bastard for not shedding a tear and lived most of my university years feeling like an emotional fake, not considering that grief is a shapeshifting process. It was only in therapy with a very patient psychologist that I finally “forgave” myself (there was nothing to forgive) and my cousin’s words appeared, like a prophet on a cliff with arms outstretched, giving comfort, and I remembered. I was trying to feel how others felt and hadn’t acknowledged my own emotions.
If I were to really look unflinchingly at my motives for feeling sorry for something, I would probably see a whole lot of guilt poisoning a good intention. Guilt that I am in a better position for whatever reason, for example. Let’s take the horrors that have struck Japan this week. I see the reports, watch a few YouTube clips in morbid fascination and now, as I type this feel guilty about carrying on with my daily life. Herewith a live transcript of the snowball of my Catholic guilt rolling down the hill of my brain:
…Is there anything I can do? I could perhaps join Médecins Sans Frontieres and help out. But I’m not, I am writing final exams next week. I could donate online. Have I? No. And if I did, why haven’t I done so before? What about all the local charities that could use my support closer to home…
The thoughts could (and momentarily do, sometimes) paralyse me. But there is something I can do. I can realise I’m not responsible for the Sendai disaster. I can realise that the average Japanese victim does not begrudge me being spared, living as I am on one of the one of the most geologically (if not politically) stable spots on the planet. And, maybe, without channelling geriatric Disney choruses, be more grateful for each fleeting moment of my life.
I guess it is like all the Great Clichés in life: All About Balance. And balance is effing difficult. If we run away from tragedy in fear and loathing we risk isolating ourselves; if we jump in blindfolded we can become drunk on our own emotions. Think of true victims of molestation too afraid and ashamed to seek help vs. all the false accusations generated from fake repressed memories. True survivors are astonishingly strong people – they don’t need anyone to feel sorry for them…
As D.H. Lawrence said:
I never saw a wild thing sorry for itself.