Saturday, November 22, 2014

Do we take comfort in someone else's pain?

A friend told me the other day that a professor told them that stereotypes are incomplete. Google will lead the uninformed curious to a quote by Nigerian-American writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (author of Americanah.)

"The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story."

I love the "The Danger of a Single Story" TED talk. It's one of those that I can watch over and over and still find myself nodding in agreement every time. 


I often wonder if we take comfort in stereotypes. I don't mean this in the sense of conforming to a preformed biased idea of how we should be - that is undoubtedly harmful to us, that was what I meant when I wrote about the myth of being yourself. What I'm referring to here is far more delusional and, by extension, dangerous.

In her talk, Chimamanda talks about her American roommate's idea of Africa, noting that: She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity. It is this well-intentioned pity that I think we easily seek comfort in. 

When I was a kid my mother told me to take comfort in the fact that there were people out there going through worse. I thought it was a twisted logic then and now I find it a dangerous consolation. Be happy with what you have, because there's someone out there who has even less reason to be happy? Misery is not the problems you face but what you make of them, how you let them affect you. Someone shared a quote on Facebook the other day, which went somewhere along the lines of how unhappy people are attention-seekers who like to wallow in self-pity. While I don't completely agree with unhappiness being a wholly conscious decision, I do think that it's odd to be happy that someone out there has been a dealt what my bias assumes is a worse fate. As if knowing that a poor orphan with cancer has lead a happier life than I should make me feel guilty for not loving mine, thankful for not sharing those problems. It's miserable, and it is a reflex reaction of those who have lead generally stable lives. We swallow the half-representation of reality, the stereotype, because it makes us feel good about ourselves. (I may have got side-tracked here a bit.) Not Schadenfreude, something like Schaden-reassurance.

This randomly reminds me of a quote from Khaled Hosseini's brilliant novel, And The Mountains Echoed, about a poetess romanticizing the normal lives of her staff, and their indignation at becoming her puppet-characters.

That night, the poem she chose to read caught me off guard. It was about a man and his wife, in the village, mourning the death of the infant they had lost to the winter cold. The guests seemed to love the poem, judging by the nods and the murmurs of approval around the room, and by their hearty applause when Nila looked up from the page. Still, I felt some surprise, and disappointment, that my sister's misfortune had been used to entertain guests, and I could not shake the sense that some vague betrayal had been committed. 

A few weeks ago, I was walking to the train station from my college, when I saw two small children , no more than eight years old, carrying half-empty alcohol bottles in their hands and a suspicious sway in their gait, blabbering nonsensicalities at passers-by who didn't seem all that bothered. I felt no pity or anger or horror, I didn't feel anything, I just registered my complete disconnection to the situation. We barely know the reality we are surrounded by, far be it from us to judge or understand someone else's world. Every time I look at one of those artsy portrait-photos of old working-class men and women with their characteristic weary eyes, I search for the beauty people appear to find in them. All it is is taking comfort in someone else's misery and marvelling at their obvious acceptance of what we find unthinkable. It's a local version of the admiration given to an exoticized half-truth like Slumdog Millionaire. 

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