On callousness

by The Editor

SERIES: The Thing About is a weekly Business Day column designed to discuss democratic ideas, ideals, values and principles from a liberal perspective. Pain and suffering is as much a part of life as joy and pleasure but the lessons they hold are often counterintuative and thus, not well learnt; for one’s inclination is to ignore or dismiss pain simply because it is onerous indeed to try and relate to it. But that attitude comes at a cost.

On callousness

By: Gareth van Onselen

12 March 2012

The pain of others is an inconvenient burden to bear; for it requires the suspension of one’s own anxieties, in order that one might relate to another’s hurt. And, ultimately, that is an act of generosity, certainly selflessness, which runs contrary to the selfish impulse that motivates many to action.

Even then, sympathy is merely a projection of one’s own understanding; for hurt is shaped as much by a person’s experience as it is by their disposition and both combine to make it unique to them. Bridging that divide – between what one understands to be pain and how it is actually felt by another – is thus an onerous business, which detracts from one’s own circumstance; so many are resistant to it. And, more often than not, suffering and sorrow is, at best, simply acknowledged, at worst, ignored entirely.

There is, of course, a pragmatic reason not to indulge every painful experience one encounters. Misery is a commanding force in life and to indulge it in this way would be to surrender one’s own outlook to depression’s inviting arms.

In the other direction, however, to dismiss the pain and hurt of others is to augment emotional ignorance and, with that, to proscribe from one’s emotional repertoire kindness and compassion, both a far more powerful force for good than the cold, callous spirit that engenders indifference, even hate.

For this reason suffering is worth dwelling upon, if only to better understand its nature. It seems glib to say in this way we learn too about ourselves, but there is much truth to that: if not about how to come to terms with some personal distress, then to better understand empathy and its positive affect on others.

An indifferent attitude to pain is a cruel one; concern for others, the touchstone that ignites the impulse to do good. For that reason alone it is something worth striving for.

Gareth van Onselen writes in his personal capacity. He is employed by the DA as a Director of Political Analysis and Development. An abbreviated version of this column first appeared in the Business Day.