In My Own Write: Emotional overload

By
January 25, 2011 22:55

A calm appraisal of another’s situation, with some emotional distance kept between helper and sufferer, is far more beneficial for both sides.




‘Fall of Icarus’ by Peter Breughel the Elder

‘Fall of Icarus’ by Peter Breughel the Elder 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Hurrying to meet a friend for brunch on Monday, I barely had time to glance at the headlines in the newspaper. “Did you see the story about the young Ra’anana woman who died last week sitting behind the driver of a motorcycle?” my friend said, as we waited for our order.

“Aliza Goldenberg was her name. What an attractive young woman – and she wasn’t even 21.”

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“A tragedy,” I responded, even as he told me that she had carried an ADI donor card and saved the lives of four people.

A minute later, we were eating and talking about something else, laughing and joking as we normally do.

I might have lingered longer on the accident had it prompted a recollection of my daughter’s 2009 travels in Thailand, which were done (I found out later) mainly on the back of a motorcycle; or a much older memory of my youthful self on holiday in Switzerland, riding helmetless down a mountain behind a boy on a bicycle.

As it was, my empathy with someone cut down cruelly, barely out of girlhood, came and went in a flash; while the suffering of those closest to her was just beginning. That’s just the way it is.

DURING that awful time in the 2000s when buses and people were being blown up here on a regular basis, I have a clear memory of one afternoon when I was out shopping for clothes, and news came over the radio of yet another terrorist suicide bombing in Jerusalem, leaving many dead and wounded.

I remember standing frozen in the store, unable to either carry on with what I was doing, or leave.

On the one hand, we needed to show “them,” and ourselves, that we could not easily be defeated, that we would carry on with our lives, regardless. But, on the other hand, how in heaven’s name could one do anything as frivolous as shop for a new skirt while fellow Israelis were bleeding and dying? Either way, I felt weighed down with guilt.

This was a period when the issue of how we react – how to react – while other people are suffering nearby intruded itself painfully often, without any satisfactory answer being provided.

We were, indeed, living in an abnormal reality.

AN unscheduled event at the Jerusalem Scrabble Club some two decades ago astonishes me still because of the way in which extreme suffering and “carrying on as usual” were, by simple circumstance, closely juxtaposed.

It happened back when the club was meeting weekly at the International Cultural Center for Youth in Emek Refaim.

A man died in the middle of a game. That is, he didn’t exactly die; he had a massive heart attack – apparently after putting down a bingo – and laid his head on the Scrabble board.

Despite efforts to resuscitate him, he expired in hospital.

As I picture it now, it was like a scene in a movie: While this longtime friend to many club members, seated at one end of the long room, was drawing his last breaths, people at the other end – there were perhaps 40 players sitting in pairs at small tables – went on placidly with their games, oblivious to the fact that their fellow member was playing out his endgame.

How, I wonder, did they feel on learning about their unknowing proximity to tragedy occurring close by? The reality of intense suffering coexisting alongside the mundane inspired the poet W.H. Auden.

About suffering they were never wrong, The Old Masters; how well they understood Its human position; how it takes place while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along...

– Musee des Beaux Arts by W.H. Auden (1907 –1973) IT isn’t often that we can visualize almost exactly the way in which a poem came to be written. That’s why “Musee des Beaux Arts,” besides highlighting with supreme elegance an existential truth about suffering, is so powerful.

In 1938, Wystan Hugh Auden visited the Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels, where his attention was caught by Peter Breughel the Elder’s painting of the Fall of Icarus.

In this story of an unfortunate boy of Greek mythology, Icarus and his father, Daedalus, are stuck in Crete, on order of the king. So Daedalus fashions wings for each of them and instructs the youth: Don’t fly too close to the sea, or to the sun. In time-honored fashion, the paternal warning goes unheeded, with catastrophic result: Icarus flies near the sun, melts the wax that holds the wings to his body, crashes into the sea, and drowns.

So much for ignoring your parents.

WHAT struck Auden about the famous 16th-century painting was the way everything “turns away quite leisurely from the disaster.”

The ploughman, who must have heard the splash in the water and Icarus’s cry, went on plowing; the sun went on shining; even the nearby ship “that must have seen / Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky, / Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.”

Impressed by Breughel’s depiction of the “human position” – in which great suffering occurs side by side with dull routine, even indifference – Auden went on to write his wonderful poem.

HOW to react sanely to the human suffering that is continuously and relentlessly thrust at us in the guise of “news”? This question is far more relevant to us who live in the global village than it was in Breughel’s, or even in Auden’s time.

Earthquakes, tsunamis, fires, floods, bombings, murder, mayhem and every variety of human mischief scream at us 24/7 from our ever-evolving mass communication networks. It’s hard to escape.

The danger of such continuous bombardment is that we become desensitized to the human suffering going on, treating it no differently from the “entertainment” offered on our TV screens.

There’s also the problem of numbers: One may empathize with a single victim, or even with several; but how to feel for thousands, or hundreds of thousands, swept away in a natural disaster? They become faceless, “live from the scene” reports notwithstanding.

This issue of mass victimhood, of course, is just one of the troubling aspects of mourning the Six Million lost in the Holocaust. Which is why Yad Vashem has emphasized the importance of giving every victim a name.

WE obviously can’t – nor should we – fully identify with every suffering victim we hear about, or even get to meet. If we could, we’d be instant candidates for straitjackets and padded cells. The amazing toolbox that houses the human psyche contains a valve that protects our innermost selves from such dangerous emotional overload.

What we need to do, especially in Israel – where every experience seems heightened – is bear in mind that emotional involvement in others’ suffering necessarily has its limits and that, like in a swimming pool, we should wade out only to a depth that is safe.

Anyway, untramelled emotion is really not the best path to healthy involvement, nor to genuine help.

Ask any experienced psychologist, physician, lawyer, counselor or detective.

A calm appraisal of another’s situation, with some emotional distance kept between helper and sufferer, is far more beneficial for both sides.

IT appears that we’re unable to internalize too much suffering on the part of others and stay sane. But, strangely enough, where happiness is concerned, emotional overload seems much less of a problem.

No one I know of ever had a breakdown from hearing too much good news.

That being the case, bring it on!


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