Human life is a system of all things fragile. The defining characteristic of anything that is considered “earthly” is its mortality, fallibility, and general impermanence. Life, then, is nothing more than a network of people, things, ideas, and circumstances that are susceptible to failure and to hurt, but still manage to work beautifully.
Oftentimes, we understand the most about ourselves not in the spaces where our character is isolated from that of others, but in the spaces where our character overlaps with the time and space of those around us. We realize that our lives and the way that we structure our actions around and for them are defined by the places where they intersect. In those places of overlap, hurt will happen, failure will occur, and disappointment will manifest. Sigmund Freud once defined “suffering” as coming from three distinct places in the human experience: from our own mortal bodies, from the external, unpredictable world, and lastly from “our relations to other men.” Freud noted that this last place is the most painful of the three, often because our relations to other men, unlike our own bodies and the world around us, are chosen.
A surface-level understanding of this distinction can be summed up as: “Human relation hurts the most because we choose who hurts us, which is avoidable if we never picked it in the first place.” While true, a deeper understanding involves another primary function of the human: empathy. When Freud said that our relations to other men hurt more than any other locus of suffering, part of what he was hinting at was the idea that when we choose to interact and connect with another human being, we expose ourselves to their fallibilities. When we involve ourselves in the lives of other people, we become a part of the surroundings and connections that they have either been subject to, or have chosen to define themselves by. Sometimes, these surroundings and connections are not pretty, and “it” gets to us.
Empathy can be defined in colloquial terms as the effect of something that happens to another person “getting to us.” Understanding and feeling for the circumstances of another being changes the filters from which we view our own lives, and many times spurns action that would not have occurred without experiencing or witnessing those experiences. While the characteristics of something “getting to us” are fairly straightforward, determining the “what” is not so simple of a task.
The “it” that gets to us is often intangible. It can be feelings, tears, elation, depression, joy, or anger. It can be things we can see and relate to, but not touch. The “it” is also oftentimes tangible. It can be physical life and home circumstances, hunger, satisfaction, coldness, or warmth—both figurative and literal. The point is that empathy is not exclusive to negative feelings, but it is at its strongest when the object of the empathy falls into some sort of sufferable category. The common thread between what “it” could possibly be however, is that whatever “it” is, is constant. When, generally speaking, it gets to us, it is not a single, isolated object or circumstances, but the life that another person has been subject to or has chosen to envelope themselves in. It is no wonder that suffering—the most “earthly” experience possible—is the object of the most human of functions.
There is a saying that talks about how we should not keep anything in our homes that we do not consider either beautiful or useful. Some argue the same should be true for our own lives. The fact is however, sometimes the ugly is useful. In fact, most of the time, it is. “It” needs to get to us in order to ground us, and it needs to ground us before we are ever in a position to do anything about it. The fragilities of our lives that we strive to ameliorate—all of the ugly, imperfect, unjust, and unfair circumstances and experiences that we carry with us, are all merely symptoms of the most basic fragility of them all: being human.
The most beautiful part about humanity is the unseen power that comes from places of struggle, and that are brought to light only through the imperfections of others. It is remarkable how the shortcomings of one person have the capability to bring out the best in another. It is only through pain that we learn the healing powers of our fellow man, only through injustice that we are capable of defining for ourselves what justice is, and only through struggle—through the most “human” experience—that we see the power that letting it get to us has, after all.
Image courtesy of Vivien J-Dora, Flickr Creative Commons