As I watched TB Silent Killer, a documentary about an outbreak of virulent tuberculosis in Swaziland, I was struck by the patients’ willingness to talk freely about their despair. If anyone had just cause to despair, 12-year-old Nokubegha does. This orphaned child was quarantined for months in a TB hospital in the developing world, far away from her only sibling. Yet, as she spoke frankly about pain and isolation, I had to beat down a peculiar sense of unease that perhaps only an American would feel. I was afraid that someone would call these people downers or whiners. It was as if a chipper person would pop up from behind a bed pan to the TB patients that “pity party time was over.” Or worse, that someone would accuse them of trying to make others “feel bad.” Heaven forbid!
I don’t believe that it’s impossible to make someone else feel bad anymore than I believe someone can will tuberculosis from their body. Still, in most cases, we have a lot more control over our bad feelings than many people realize. More importantly, when we witness someone’s genuine pain or hear them describe it, it seems strange to assume that they are intentionally suffering to make us feel bad or to hurt us in any way–as if your emotional state did much for them all by itself. Yes, I’ve met a few people who seem to harm themselves out of spite, but most of us do not seek misfortunes in order to play out some drama for an audience. Regardless of the suffering person’s intentions or awareness of our response, unless we are a true psychopaths, we will feel along with him or her. These emotions may push us toward action, but they can’t force us to do anything and neither can the person who is suffering.
Feeling empathy, understanding, and outrage at injustice can move a person to actually help others, but feeling bad is mercy strained. We feel bad when we think there’s nothing we can do to help. (Listening is doing something, and it’s hard work.) We feel bad when we believe that we are to blame for the other person’s misfortunes, and worse when we sense how easily we could wind up like them. This feeling bad fog of impotence, guilt, shame, and pity is pretty useless. Left unchecked, it can actually make the situation worse for those who are suffering.
When people feel bad, they usually want to make it stop. And the easiest way to make it stop is to avoid the source of bad feeling. Even I–a fan of Frontline, which isn’t exactly feel good TV–was tempted to look away from TB Silent Killer. And I just couldn’t deal with Mothers of Bedford, a program about incarcerated moms. So if you want people to stick around and listen to a difficult story, it’s wise to avoid saying anything that might make others feel guilty or resentful. It’s not easy, especially if you live in the land of “compassion fatigue” where there’s usually a comforting rerun of Modern Family to turn to.
Then there are the people who don’t want to stop feeling bad for others. They gravitate to it, like a creature driven to return to a spawning ground that is now polluted. They may offer help in exchange for other people’s dignity. That is too often the price of charity.
If the mere thought of others’ suffering is too much for you to handle without becoming lost in your own fog of bad feelings and martyrdom, maybe it’s better for you to turn away quietly–at least until you understand what or who is truly making you feel bad. No one profits when your sympathy curdles into blame and disgust. No one has the right to stop you from taking care of yourself, not even someone who is suffering (because we all suffer at some point).
Our motives don’t need to be absolutely pure before we can lend a hand or ear to others, but our impact will be much more beneficial if we set aside feeling bad when we try to do good.
Here’s a list of organizations helping the victims of TB:
True Vision TV’s donation page for the patients and families interviewed in TB Silent Killer