Seeing, in short, is a form of sensory reasoning.
When the assumptions on which that reasoning is based are destroyed,
seeing becomes senseless. Even though all the necessary visual information
is there, we are reduced to groping around.
—Denise Grady, “The Vision Thing: Mainly in the Brain”
What will I do with my eyes, now that they have witnessed the suffering of others?
How can they retain the beauty of the world without becoming blind to blasted limbs and bloated bellies?
Once I have seen, what am I obliged to do?
On the one hand, I have never been more exposed to the scope of the suffering of others than in this era of the twenty-four hour news cycle. I am barraged with stories of suffering on radio, television, in emails and on the Internet. Mass media allows me a front row seat at most of the prominent disasters, disasters made prominent by the projective focus of the media gaze. I witness bodies of students carried from classrooms after another campus shooting. I gape as floodwaters race through the neighborhoods of New Orleans; I fly overhead to spot those stranded on their rooftops, their eyes on the sky, waiting for rescue. I watch as tsunami overwhelms a beach in Thailand; my heart pounds along with those who scramble for higher ground. I stare again and again as the jet flies into the South Tower of the World Trade Center, as bodies fly from the tall windows like the ash that deluges lower Manhattan.
Even smaller-scale tragedy is viewed in close-up on the local news—the dazed expression of the woman whose house is lost to fire; the tears of the bereaved uncle of a two-year-old killed in the crossfire of another gang shooting. I watch in High Definition, in Liquid Crystal Display or Plasma, rear-projected or streamed over satellite. I cannot stop watching.
How do the eyes see?
The retina contains a chemical called rhodopsin, or “visual purple.” This chemical converts light into electrical impulses. These impulses are sent to the primary visual cortex, located in the occipital lobe at the back of the brain. The primary visual cortex is where vision is interpreted, that is, where the stimuli are identified as recognizable objects.
At the same time, I have never been more inured to the suffering of others. The images of the starving, the homeless, the war-torn, those whose lives have been decimated by earthquake or flood are interrupted by a commercial break. A curious abstraction overtakes me. My mind won’t take it in. It’s just another reality show, and if I can change the channel, I do, tuning into some other program where the suffering is more fictive, reassuring myself that such fate could never befall me. I can look, but do I really see?
Humans have two eyes and each perceives the world from a slightly different angle, picking up some visual information the other eye has not. The brain’s job is to combine the two, yielding a stereoscopic vision that is richer than either eye’s individual input. Stereoscopic vision allows us to see where things are in relation to our own bodies, providing depth perception. Is that event close by or is it happening far away?
Because of the seeming immediacy of media, because it appears I am brought right into the moment, I might think I see it all, but I do not. The tragedies are carefully selected, commentary scripted, the imagery deliberately framed. If it’s a slow news day, an event might be given more airtime, the story repeating every hour. If other news is occurring, this morning’s devastation might disappear by afternoon. When the event vanishes from the TV or the computer screen, when it is no longer there to be seen, it is likely to fade from my consciousness as well.
When the eye perceives an object, its light is projected onto the retina upside-down. One of tasks of the primary visual cortex is to right the image again. The brain rectifies what the eye has inverted. In people afflicted with the rare disorder known as reversal of vision metamorphopsia (RVM), this brain function is interrupted.
The RVM patient perceives everything s/he sees as being wrong side up. People appear to be walking on their heads, the windows close to the ceiling seem within reach of the hands, and a cup stands “upside down” on the shelf but the “tea does not spill out” (all objects including the shelf were upside down).
In people suffering this disorder, their brains cannot put right what has gone topsy-turvy.
Like the media, I too become selective. Exposed to a constant stream of images of misery, I develop defense mechanisms against them. Oversaturated with information about human suffering, my mind begins to tune it out. Or, worse, the parade of atrocity is so relentless that I become accustomed to it, no longer finding it unusual or alarming. It’s just the way life is. Eventually, I become desensitized, my capacity for outrage or even empathy diminished.
Within the fields of psychology and social work, it is understood that those who work with traumatized clients may themselves experience a condition called “ vicarious trauma” (also known as secondary trauma). I worked as a consultant to an organization that provides services to survivors of slavery and human trafficking; the problem hardest to solve was how to protect the organization’s staff against this secondary trauma, which they experienced as a relentless state of burnout.
Symptoms of vicarious trauma may include a heightened sense of personal vulnerability, distrust and cynicism about the human condition, and profound grief.
This condition is recognized among those who provide counseling or care giving to traumatized individuals; is it not possible to imagine that those of us who feed on a regular diet of catastrophic events via the news media might be similarly afflicted?
There are as well the catastrophes I am forbidden to witness. During the Vietnam War the images of body bags containing dead American soldiers helped bring the war home to the United States and eroded popular support for the conflict. Since that time, the U.S. military has steadfastly discouraged publication or broadcast of the over 4000 dead or over 30,000 wounded American soldiers in Iraq.
Who decides which suffering is acceptable to see and which must be kept hidden? And what is my responsibility toward things my eyes are forbidden to view?
When the extent of human suffering makes it seem as if the world is turned upside down, do I blame my vision or do I assume the problem is with the world?
My response to the suffering of people I don’t know is complex. There is the push/pull of wanting to turn away, yet being compelled to watch. I have a hunger to look that is suspect.
Their anonymous sorrow breaks through my own numbness, carefully cultivated against the onslaught of events. The televised unfolding of these disasters provides the rare moments when I allow myself to cry. I weep for strangers but seldom keen for myself. This too is suspect.
The eyes produce three types of tears: basal tears are emitted continuously in order to keep the cornea moist and protect the eye from infection; reflex tears are produced when the eye has been irritated by a foreign substance; physic tears are those associated with crying or weeping in response to emotional stress or physical pain. Physic tears have a different chemical composition than those produced to lubricate.
Behavioral psychologists who have made studies of crying have observed increased levels of stress hormones in the blood of adults prior to crying and postulate that tears are a way to restore equilibrium. Another researcher has suggested that tears are the result of being confronted with a situation for which there is no appropriate or satisfying emotional outlet. In other words, when we feel we cannot act, we weep.
Many of us who view these catastrophic events are moved to act. And this impulse can be constructive: the check sent to the Red Cross for tsunami relief, medical supplies shipped to New Orleans in the wake of the devastating hurricane, the volunteers who converge to rebuild houses after a town is decimated by a tornado, the thousands who march to protest the war in Iraq. All over the world, people are acting to end the suffering of others, and this is a bright spot in the darkness of our century.
Then there are the outpourings that seem as irrepressible as they are ill-advised: the woman who crochets an afghan and sends it to the university where students have been gunned down; the candy company that sends seven thousand pounds of chocolates coated in the school colors. Such acts seem intended to benefit the self-image of the giver more than to assist those who are suffering. Many of us, I think, commit such displays of concern as opportunities to reflect upon our own goodness.
Still, even in the most ill-advised or self-serving gesture, I recognize the human hunger to feel community, to act against atrocity, to insist we are more than passive witnesses.
But not everyone does do something. In his book, States of Denial: Knowing About Atrocities and Suffering, author Stanley Cohen describes the reasons people remain passive in the face of the suffering of others. I may not know or not understand what’s going on. I may believe that I don’t have to act because someone else will. I may fear that taking action will lead to my becoming a victim myself. I may lack identification with or compassion for the victims. Or perhaps I’ve become numbed in the face of so much suffering. I may not know what to do. Since it is impossible to respond to every instance of suffering in the world, it’s likely I utilize at least one of these reasons for inaction nearly every day.
While most loss of vision (blindness) is caused by disease, cortical blindness is caused by damage to the primary visual cortex. This is the part of the brain that interprets the images projected onto the retina. A person with cortical blindness may appear to have normal eyes that move, respond to light and demonstrate normal reflexes. However, the person is unable to see anything in the affected visual field.
Additionally, such individuals are unable to remember this visual field in their memories. They are similarly unable to imagine or dream anything in the affected visual field. This is in contrast to those whose eyes are damaged; while they are unable to see, they can still imagine visual scenes and recall memories. The person with cortical damage does not experience darkness in the visual field, but experiences nothing at all. They are not even conscious of not seeing.
It is one thing to regard the suffering caused by forces that seem at a great remove from me—natural disasters, the actions of insane individuals, terrorism, war. Suffering that I witness but in which I do not appear to participate. I observe this suffering at a distance and may appear to be a caring individual because I watch and react. But how do I fare with those who suffer close by?
I want to think of myself as available to friends during their crises. Admittedly, my friends are relatively comfortable and not lacking entirely in resources; their calamities are more often than not of an emotional nature, driven by the failure to attain something they wanted—a career opportunity or a relationship. Such suffering can usually be addressed by lending a sympathetic ear, offering a few affirming words. For those with more concrete problems—a scary diagnosis, a significant loss—I am inclined to pray. But if a friend was lacking a roof over her head or needed a kidney, to what extent would I extend myself to help?
Then there are the strangers I pass on the street. I usually give cash to the woman who sits in front of Trader Joe’s and solicits for a homeless women’s shelter. And I buy extra groceries for the men with the table in front of the supermarket collecting food for people with AIDS. Sometimes I will give money directly to people on the street, more often if it is a woman and/or if the asker has a dog or cat, and more often if someone else is with me. I hope this is not about needing someone to witness my action. My friend Lisa, reading this paragraph, objects that one shouldn’t boast about one’s generosity. Is that what I’m doing? Trying to convince the reader that I am good?
I am not that good. Many times I’ve turned my back on opportunities to help. I’ve rolled up my car window, locked the door against broken men who lurk at stoplights, extending Styrofoam cups. Against scarred men waving hand-lettered signs at the end of freeway off-ramps. My friend Suzanne used to never give money to people on the street. “Most of them are addicts,” she explained. “You might give the money to buy the hit that ends up killing them.”
I recall the older and evidently homeless woman pushing two heavy suitcases away from a bus stop as evening was falling; she did not ask, but I drove by without offering her a ride. Even though my mind said, turn around, go back, help her, I kept going. I feared that I would get embroiled, that this act would spiral out of control and derail me from the important business of my life—of course, I can no longer remember what that might have been on that particular Saturday afternoon.
I have driven past people whose cars were broken down at the side of the road. I have locked my door against gunshots heard in the neighborhood. I have sped past hitchhikers. But, Lisa objects, those are all situations that could endanger you. Perhaps. But they might also be moments when I could have given help and chose not to.
Either way, my eyes cannot pretend they have not seen.
The human eye is like a camera. The shape of its lens can be changed by the action of the ciliary muscles, so that clear images of objects at difference distances (as well as of moving objects) are formed on the retina. This ability to focus objects at varying distances is known as accommodation. If one focuses too long at either far or near distances, one may develop a condition known as accommodative fatigue, in which the eye can no longer adjust to such sustained focus.
While traveling in India, I was advised by monks not to give money to beggars in the street. “This is their karma,” I was told. “Their wretchedness helps them to advance in their next life.”
Indeed, the viewpoint of most major religions is that suffering is necessary and, if not deserved, at least instructional. Religions are in the business of explaining suffering, of helping their adherents to bear it without too vigorously protesting the conditions that cause it.
Buddhists believe that suffering arises from our craving for transient things. Hindus believe that suffering is the consequence of past or present actions. Christians and Jews share the story of Genesis, wherein the sins of Adam and Eve, in disobeying God, are cited as the cause of all subsequent affliction. Islam teaches that all human life is transitory—joys and suffering—and that our reward comes in eternal life after death.
Author Eckhart Tolle, whose books appeal to a lot of New Age thinkers, writes in A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose, “Suffering has a noble purpose: the evolution of consciousness and the burning up of the ego.” But it is easy to speak of the virtues of suffering with a full belly, a healthy body and a stable roof over one’s head. The theology of those who are suffering is, I’d venture, somewhat different.
At the same time, religious organizations have been in the forefront of efforts to bring relief to the suffering. Within every major faith one can point to food banks and soup kitchens for the hungry, hospitals for the sick, orphanages to care for children, relief efforts in times of catastrophe, sanctuary for those unjustly cast outside the law.
While some may use this as an occasion to proselytize their own beliefs, many offer their time, money, skills and services for the simple purpose of tending to the needs of those who are suffering. Even within a framework of belief that suffering is necessary, adherents still feel the necessity to act to alleviate it.
Is it our religious upbringing that causes us to blame the victims for their own suffering? To believe it must somehow be their fault. This allows us to imagine that our own virtue, good sense or luck may keep us from encountering a similar fate.
Or is it our discomfort in the face of another’s suffering? Our feelings of helplessness? Our resentment of the implication that we might be required to do something about the conditions that have produced it?
And, if we must act, exactly what are we to do?
My friend Ann takes public transportation everywhere in Los Angeles, to reduce pollution and our national dependence on oil. Crystal marches against the war. Linda teaches gardening at a battered women’s shelter. Gwin collects recyclable materials whenever provisions for recycling have not been made; she carries bags of it around in her car until she gets to a recycling facility. Rose tutors children whose parents are sick with AIDS. Debra will only purchase Fair Trade products in an effort to ensure economic justice. Krishna founded a program to teach yoga to incarcerated youth. We can each do something, but is it enough? How can it ever be enough?
Within the Buddhist Shambhala tradition, there is a practice called tonglen. It is a breathing meditation designed to help the individual address the suffering of others with compassion.
The practice is simple to describe. When confronted with an instance of suffering, one is asked to breathe in the pain of the other. On the exhalation, one breathes out the wish for relief from that pain, for joy or happiness or wellness to fill that person.
As one attempts this practice, says author and Buddhist nun Pema Chodrin in a lecture given in Berkeley in 1999, “…we come face to face with our own fear, our own resistance, anger, or whatever our personal pain, our personal stuckness happens to be…”
At that point, she further instructs, one should direct the tonglen practice to oneself and to all the other people in the world who wish to be compassionate but are prevented from doing so by their own personal pain. Inhale that stuckness; exhale the wish for an open heart, for oneself and for all.
It is easy to be skeptical about the individual gesture. The world is so vast and the suffering so widespread. Who is helped by our puny efforts—is suffering alleviated or do we just give ourselves an opportunity to feel better about ourselves? It is easy to feel powerless before the immensity of it.
And yet, how are we to know the effect of our actions? A seemingly innocent individual act has the power to do harm—leaving the tap running while I brush my teeth can cumulatively and over time contribute to a shortage of drinking water; driving my car across town is slowly causing the polar bears to drown.
Can I not then also assume that prayers and acts of kindness could have an equally potent effect for good?
Many people have refraction problems with their vision. Some of us have eyes that allow us to see well the things that are close up but blur those things that are far away. Others have the opposite difficulty; we have clear vision for what’s taking place at a distance, but can’t focus on what’s right in front of our face.
There is much beauty in the world. Not only in nature, but also in the kindness and compassion of the human spirit. At the same time there is so much suffering, some inflicted intentionally, some unintentionally.
We have two eyes and each sees from a slightly different angle. One eye can take in the beauty of the world; the other must witness its calamities. It is in the brain that the image is combined to produce what we “see.”
What do we do with our eyes, presented with such disparate visions? Do we shut them tight and stumble blindly? Do we focus on one aspect, block out the other? Or do we open both eyes wide, drink in all we can, the light and dark, the suffering and transcendence, regarding with all our power every aspect of what it means to be human?