Suffering should unite us, so why does it divide?

At a recent march in support of Palestinians, I thought about the history of Irish-Palestinian solidarity and the question of suffering. 

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There could scarcely have been a less appropriate slogan for Britain’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis than Rishi Sunak’s “We’re all in this together.” Did nobody think to anticipate the slew of retorts, which write themselves? “We’re all in this together – or are we?” “We’re all in this together, but some more so than others.” Who is materially encompassed by this “we”? To whom do we owe our compassion and social protection? Who counts as a person? These questions are increasingly troubling as the truth of global vaccine inequality becomes clear. We look at the unimaginable scenes in India playing out even as we celebrate our success in Britain.

Or, rather, we don’t look. Not for very long. Long enough to register the situation as dreadful, perhaps even long enough to be outraged that lower-income countries could lag years behind us in their vaccine provision. But then we stop looking. We are all weary, and many of us are fearful of the situation here backsliding. Certainly, I am so determined that things will be all right again that it is difficult to sincerely regard the pain of others for very long. Many of us are mourning people we have lost. We may have lost them to the virus itself, or have missed out on a final precious year or months because of lockdowns. Even those of us with objectively good circumstances, with adequate and steady employment and housing throughout, have been vulnerable to life-changing loss in this pandemic.

At a recent march in support of Palestinians, I thought about the history of Irish-Palestinian solidarity and the question of suffering. What differentiates the kind of suffering which makes us closed off and defensive, and the kind which enables solidarity? Suffering does not make us inherently more empathetic or caring, it is not necessarily ennobling or humbling. It can be responsible for our ugliest and most callous behaviour. Being abused or oppressed can sometimes blind you to what power you do still have. I have been guilty of this in ways I am only now starting to recognise and address.

I felt I was hard done by for various reasons. I suffered. Some of the things I suffered were objective and systemic wrongs, like the ban on abortion in the Republic of Ireland which led me, as it did many others, to a traumatic and devastating conclusion. About this I was justifiably angry. Then there were the other causes of my suffering – which were not really anyone’s fault, but the result of a complex set of circumstances involving shame and secrecy and mental illness. But I conflated my genuine experiences of oppression with all the other disasters of my early twenties, so that I accrued a general and fuzzy sense of having been wronged by the world.

[see also: How Covid-19 created a new hierarchy of suffering]

Everything that was wrong in my life – that I had to worry about money every day, that I had no prospects, that I was generally a sort of pitiable mess of a person – seemed the result of some sinister persecution I couldn’t name but felt to be reality. Feeling this way blinded me to the fact that I was capable of harming others. How could such a trod-upon, insignificant, worn-down person as I – no, not a person but a woman – do anything at all to another human being, let alone hurt them? I can see now that my suffering, which was indeed real and terrible, nevertheless made me a worse person, not a better one.

When we are unable to use our shared pain in a productive or community-minded way, when it blinds us to the experiences of others, it isn’t that we actually believe that our own pain is worse than anyone else’s. Rather, I think it consumes us so intensely that we have no energy left to consider others. Dealing with what’s directly in front of you takes all you have. Even if you are aware that there is, in theory, hope to be found in coming together, the idea of substantial change can feel so distant as to be pointless or unreachable. The immediate is all you can grapple with.

The immediate is also often the only thing it feels possible to invest in politically. I am not currently on the hard edge of things any more. I can support myself, think further ahead, but when I want to use the resources I have accumulated in a useful way, the only appropriate place seems to be the front line. I support the Trussell Trust, for instance, which provides food banks. But I do often wish I could instead put my spare energy and money towards a body which is trying to disassemble the sort of world that necessitates food banks.

One of the more demoralising outcomes of the system we live in is that when one is hurt by its failings, we are encouraged to atomise even further, to grab close whatever remaining crumb we have left and look at others with suspicion lest they try to take it. If you report the neighbour you suspect of fiddling benefits, maybe your anger at subsisting on a demeaningly low wage will be diverted. Suffering isn’t ennobling, but it doesn’t have to be like this either.

Solidarity isn’t a noble sacrifice. Acting in solidarity with others is usually in our own best interests. Somewhere in between the Sun creating the caricature of the “loony left” and all the clichés about gap year students boring on about Marxism while living off their mum and dad’s money, it became embarrassing to talk about solidarity, collective action, or the importance of community. But it’s a perfectly reasonable thing to say, maybe the only thing worth saying: that when we come together, we can create meaningful change. And when our suffering unites rather than divides us, things can be different. 

[see also: Why Britain’s obsession with American activism reveals how little we understand the US]

Megan Nolan is a writer of essays, criticism and fiction born in Ireland and based in London. She writes a fortnightly column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 26 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The new Toryism

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