In the same way that “we filter for people who are like us intellectually and politically,” he wrote, “we also filter for misery,” so that the suffering around us passes unheard and unseen.
To get sick and fail to get better is to realize the harsh truth of this insight. Human beings have a great capacity for kindness, empathy, and help, but we are more likely to rise to the occasion when it is clearly an occasion – a moment of crisis, a time-bound period of stress. In the aftermath of a hurricane, society doesn’t usually fragment; it comes together in solidarity and support. Likewise with families and individuals facing suffering at the moment that it descends, or when a terrible arc finally bottoms out: Not always, but very often, people behave well, with great generosity, in the face of a mortal diagnosis, a mental collapse, an addict’s nadir. Not least because in those circumstances there are things you can clearly do, from the prosaic – making frozen dinners for a suffering family – to the more dramatic and extreme, like flying across the country to help drag a friend into rehab.
But when the crisis simply continues without resolution, when the illness grinds on and on and on – well, then a curtain tends to fall, because there isn’t an obvious way to integrate that kind of struggle into the realm of everyday life. It’s not clear what the healthy person is supposed to give to a friend or family member who isn’t dying, who doesn’t have some need that you can fill with a discrete act of generosity, but who just has the same problems – terrible but also, let’s be a frank, a little boring – day after depressing day.
“Pain is always new to the sufferer, but loses its originality for those around him,” the 19th-century French writer Alphonse Daudet wrote of his experience of a different spirochetal infection, syphilis, whose pain could be managed ut in his case never cured. “Everyone will get used to it except me.”
Or alternatively, in an age of scattered friendships and virtual connections, everyone will forget about it except me.