The Pros and Cons of Caring Deeply about Others’ Suffering

First, the cons:

When you care deeply about other people’s suffering, you suffer too. Not as much as they do, generally, but you still suffer. You feel a small piece of what it feels like to be homeless, to be a suicidal gay teenager, to be sexually assaulted, to be beaten for being transgender, or to have your teenage son shot for the crime of existing while black.

You don’t get to go for the big bucks. Unsurprisingly, there’s not a lot of money in caring about other people’s suffering. Unless you’re very, very lucky (like if you write a song about other people’s suffering that goes to number one on the Billboard chart), the best you’ll probably do financially is to be reasonably comfortable. And even if you do get lucky, you’ll probably turn around and plow a good chunk of your good fortune into alleviating the suffering you care about.

You waste a lot of time arguing. Indeed, much of your time is spent trying to persuade other people that the suffering right in front of their faces is real; that the people who are suffering shouldn’t be blamed for it; that working to alleviate suffering isn’t futile. (When I was writing about misogyny recently and asked people to say something about it, many of them argued that speaking out against misogyny was a waste of time; that nobody’s mind would ever be changed by it.) Arguing certainly can be effective, and it does amplify the work you’re doing and gets other hands on deck. But it’s a waste of time in the sense that it’s valuable time spent arguing for what should be obvious. It’s valuable time that all of you could have spent doing the damn work.

And when you’re persuading people that suffering is real and that they should give a damn, you get to feel just a little bit guilty about it. As you’re desperately trying to pry open other people’s eyes, you feel a little bad about the life of suffering you’re exposing them to.

You feel guilty. You worry about whether you’re doing it right, whether you should be working on something different, whether you could do better. You become vividly conscious of the ways that you yourself contribute to other people’s suffering: buying products made by exploited labor, banking with banks that exploit the poor, driving cars that spew greenhouse gas. Every time you don’t take action, every time you don’t help, every time you don’t donate money or don’t volunteer time or don’t hit “Share” or “Retweet” on the fundraising letter, you feel bad about it. And every time you do donate or volunteer or spread the word, you worry about whether you could have done it better or whether you could have done more.

You feel helpless. A lot. Once you open yourself up to other people’s suffering, you quickly become aware of just how much of it there is, and how little you personally can do about it. You feel overwhelmed. You are vividly aware of the fact that no matter what you do, no matter how much you work and sacrifice, at the end of your life there will still be a massive amount of suffering in the world. I sometimes think the helplessness is worse than the guilt and that the guilt is a defense mechanism against the helplessness. Feeling like you could have prevented suffering gives you a sense of control—it makes you feel like you can prevent it in the future. As crappy as it is to feel like you could have done something and didn’t, I think it’s sometimes harder to feel like there’s nothing you could have done.

And you never, ever, ever get a break. You never really get a vacation; you never get to retire. When you do go on vacation, you think about the lives of the people who clean your hotel rooms and wait on your tables. You leave generous tips and feel how inadequate even that is. It’s like the red pill in The Matrix: once you’ve swallowed it, you can’t un-swallow it. Once you know about other people’s suffering, you can’t un-know it. You have to care about it, and feel it, and feel guilty about not doing enough about it, and feel helpless over how little you can do about it—for the rest of your life.

Now, the pros:

You get to have a life that matters.

You get to make a difference. You get to have a life that’s larger than just yourself, larger than just your own safety and pleasure. You get to feel powerful, in a good way. You get to feel the ripples of your life expand out into the world. You get to feel like part of history. You get to look back on your life and see how the world is better because you are in it.

You get to feel intimately connected with the world. You get to touch people’s lives, and now and then you get to hear them tell you how. You get to see other people inspired by the work you’re doing, and you get to see them take that inspiration into their own work. You get to be inspired by other people, and you get to take that inspiration into your own work. You get to feel like a link in a chain, like part of something bigger than yourself.

You get an answer to the question, “What is the meaning of my life?”

You get to avoid so much cognitive dissonance. You get to enjoy the pleasures of your life without that twisting, churning feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you know you’re ignoring something important. Shutting out the reality of other people’s suffering means—well, shutting out reality. It means lying to yourself; it means building a labyrinth of walls inside your head and your heart, a labyrinth of denial and rationalization that leaves calluses and scars. It means living in a bubble, in a gated community that locks you in as surely as it locks the world out. Letting yourself care about other people’s suffering means you don’t have to do that. It’s true that you feel guilty about not doing enough—but you also get to put your feet up at the end of the day and know that you did something worth doing. And it means that you don’t have to shut the world out. You get to let it all in.

And you get to know some of the best people in the world. When you care deeply about other people’s suffering and when you work to do something about it, you start running into other people who also care and work to change things for the better. And these people are amazing. They are brilliant, imaginative, tough, tender, compassionate (obviously), and hilarious. They will help you out of a jam. They will listen, really listen, to what’s going on with you. They will show you parts of the world you had no idea existed. They will make your world larger, more complex, and more interesting. They will inspire you to be a better person. Sitting around a bar or a café or a dining room table with people who passionately care about the same things you do and who you share a history with, laughing and gossiping and brainstorming and eating take-out and planning the future—there is nothing like it in the world.

It seems like a hard choice—to tune in or tune out. But honestly, it’s not.

I really don’t have a choice at this point. I’ve swallowed the red pill and I can’t un-swallow it; I have knowledge of others’ suffering, and I can’t un-know it. But if I did have the choice, I would make the same one again, every time, without hesitation.

  • DavePH

    So I have more money than I need to live a Spartan existence and spare time beyond fulfilling my basic obligations to my loved ones. I could essentially pick a random person or group in need (from the infinite) for them to “win the lottery” and solve most of their problems. They would likely be grateful to me forever. I win “life”, being fulfilled as defined.
    Or, do I work to reduce the need for a society that depends on “nobles” to grant relief to their favorites or the lucky who win the random lottery by being in the right place at the right time when a fortunate one feels generous.

    • hypermach

      thanks for this

    • RowanVT

      You know that almost-cloying story about the boy and the starfish?

      I feel that it mattered more than I spent $100 to help get someone’s beloved pitbull through the night so she could get the money to deal with the pyometra the next day even though the dog died overnight. I was 100% expecting them to never pay me back but 2 days later they did, and brought me flowers, and the high school-age daughter said her dream after graduating was to become a vet tech so she could help people like I helped them.

      Or I could have taken that $100 and given it to… the ASPCA where it might get used to lobby for … something?

      I made a direct difference in the lives of those people. It was a small difference, but it helped. It’s why I bought food for the homeless around my last place of employment the monday after every pay day. I enjoyed directly helping those men, and they got to have a bit of human kindness shown to them.

  • LostINtheWoods

    I appreciate your blogs immensely. I often feel hopeless and guilty (various personal reasons including frivolity). Thanks.

  • UWIR

    “They are brilliant, imaginative, tough, tender, compassionate (obviously), and hilarious.”

    Given how horribly you treat anyone who disagrees with you, and how willing you are to make dishonest arguments, such claims fall rather flat.

    • John H

      You’re mistaking “compassion” for “being nice to everyone”. For an example of when these are at odds, being nice to rapists precludes demonstrating compassion for their victims, becasue compassion for their victims requires creating spaces where rapists are not allowed. The cases of which you’re thinking are likely also born of compassion – compassion for the people harmed by the people whom Greta, in your view, treated horribly. That may not be the case every single time, but most of the time it holds true.

      • RowanVT

        Seconded. I’m very compassionate, but I will chew the ass out of someone I see doing harm. I work in the veterinary medicine field as a tech, so much of my compassion ends up focused on animals. But I have given many an angry lecture to owners who have been severely neglecting their animals, or gone on extended rants to coworkers about something someone did to their pet.

        Compassion makes one fierce in many ways.

      • UWIR

        “You’re mistaking “compassion” for “being nice to everyone”. ”

        No, I’m not. You’re mistaking “I’ve come up with a hypothesis that I find consistent with your post” with “This is what you’re definitely doing”. Compassion means being willing to listen to opposing points of view, being willing to explain one’s own, and a commitment to fairly representing the situation. GC has shown severe deficits in this regard.

        “The cases of which you’re thinking are likely also born of compassion”

        And how did you come to that conclusion? I don’t think I am going too much out on a limb to guess that the entire basis for that statement is merely that you like GC, and want a basis to dismiss criticism of her. You’ve simply assumed into existence the premise that there are people harmed by the people in question, based on nothing but motivated reasoning.

        “being nice to rapists precludes demonstrating compassion for their victims”

        It’s rather telling that when I say that GC is rude to those who disagree with her, you jump to rapists. Because disagreeing with GC is totally analogous to rape.

        This “you can’t be nice to people I don’t like” kind of thinking that leads to fanaticism. It’s “You’re for me or you’re against me” thinking; you treat failing to act in the manner that you think people should act to be a personal affront, even an abrogation of your rights.

        Your comment also sweeps under the rug the epistemological issue of how we identify rapists, and as literally stated, requires lack of niceness towards any rapist, regardless of whether the rape is known.

    • Azkyroth

      Compassion means not being an enabler.

      • UWIR

        What a mindless, contentless response. You people are starting to remind me of Christians who drone on about how love doesn’t actually mean treating other people well.

  • Mariana Nogales Molinelli

    Lovely, my feelings exactly.

  • Brad Kelley

    This was incredibly insightful. I live this life, and try to be as reflective as I can be, but to put all this down like you did is a wonderful thing. Sometimes we have to act, and at times we have to reflect on our actions and the reasons for these actions. And sometimes we have to work to make ourselves stronger and more physically and emotionally ready for the challenges of helping others. This piece significantly helps with those reflections. Thank you.

  • WEWE GALORE

    look at my wewe.. u get me so HARD !!!!!!! :——>