Dwelling on our own suffering makes us blind to the pain of others
Family members of victims console each other as they gather to pay their respect at the reflecting pool at Ground Zero during the eighth anniversary commemoration ceremony / Reuters
On Sunday, New York will pause to remember and honor the victims who died in the attacks on the World Trade Center 10 years ago. Not as grandly as we did on the first anniversary of the attacks, of course. But that's as it should be. The wounds were fresh then, so the drama and emotion were both much higher. More than 3,000 people died in a single morning, and the images of people voluntarily jumping to their deaths is seared in our collective memory; a graphic reminder of just how horrific the attacks and their damage were. But the damage of 9/11 went beyond those actually killed. And the challenges facing the survivors are more complex.
Some of the people participating in the anniversary events in New York (and in others commemorating those killed on Flight 93 in Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon) will be literal survivors of those attacks. Others will be family members who were, by association, either emotional victims, or survivors, or both, depending on how you look at it. In truth, all Americans are peripheral survivors, in that we were all traumatized by the events of that day and had our lives impacted and changed by their fallout.
And yet, while all that is true, and the honoring and commemoration of our individual and collective loss is both legitimate and appropriate, we should still approach our identification with being victims or survivors with a healthy dose of caution.
At the end of June, I attended an unusual summit conference sponsored by Google Ideas, The Council on Foreign Relations, and the Tribeca Film Festival. Titled the "Summit Against Violent Extremism," it brought together some 200 people who had been involved in, or had been affected by, violent extremism of one kind or another, from Islamic jihadists to nationalist fighters, to gang members, to neo-Nazi skinheads, to Colombian jungle rebels.
The organizers separated the attendees into two groups: "survivors" and "formers" (formers being former extremists). All of the attendees were now working actively to combat violent extremism. And the stories of loss among the survivors were heart-rending. But their inclusion in the conference implied a bit of moral preaching to the "formers": we, the victims, plead with you, the perpetrators, to feel our pain. And one of the most striking moments of the conference, for me, came near the end, when one of the organizers asked a former Islamist fighter (now a soft-spoken Imam in a London mosque who works actively against violent extremism) if he'd ever had someone with a survivor's perspective speak at his mosque.
"I would like to make a couple of points," the Imam answered quietly. "First of all, I HAVE suffered. My little brother was killed, and I have lost 22 relatives in war. So," he said, gesturing to a survivor on the same panel, "I know about personal suffering in the same way as you have done."
That one, simple interchange conveyed two powerful and cautionary lessons about the hazards of victim and survivor-hood.
When tragedy or violence strikes us, we are victims of it. And if we survive it we are, by definition, survivors. I nearly died at the age of 20 when the car I was in was struck at high speed by an angry, drunk young man who'd just lost his job. The path back from that darkness, physically and emotionally, was painful and long. The good news is, humans are remarkably adaptable and resilient. You go on from tragedies. You just don't go on intact, or the same. And the self that you drag and pull forward from a tragedy feels (and sometimes is) so battered and imperfect that there can be great strength from acknowledging the injustice of what happened (I was a victim) and the difficulty of coming back from that (I am a survivor). It can help a battered soul heal.
But if those labels become part of our longer-term identities instead of just phases of healing, the focus on our own pain and suffering can blind us to the pain and suffering of others. The suffering of a mother whose innocent child was killed in the Twin Towers, while unique, is not more or less than the suffering of a mother whose innocent child was killed by a bullet or bomb, regardless of who fired it, dropped it or set it off, in Iraq, Pakistan or any other place in the world.
The interchange at the conference was also a cautionary reminder about the dark places where a sense of victimhood can lead. Many of the "formers" were also victims, and survivors, of injustice and violence of a different sort. But their righteous sense of their status as victims took them down a road where, at some point, any reaction became, therefore, justified.
Nahum Pachenik, one of the "formers" at the conference who described himself as "born into conflict" as the child of Israeli settlement pioneers near Hebron, even joked a bit about the victimhood rivalry between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
"The two sides have very similar thinking," he said. "[They say] 'We are the victim.' 'No, WE are the victim.'No. We are MORE the victim.'"
Victimhood is wonderfully appealing, Pachenik said, because "in the victim position, you don't have to admit anything, because all of the responsibility is on the other."
Nevertheless, Pachenik finally came to the conclusion that if he wanted to move away from the stalemate of violence around him, he had to give up the comfort of victimhood for the tougher and more challenging path of knowledge. He now runs an organization that strives to promote better knowledge and understanding between Palestinians and Israelis... starting with learning each other's language.
"Knowledge," Pachenik said, "is the opposite of the position of the victim. Today, I believe it is more important to promote education. It's important to learn the language of the other. Because if you do that, there is, maybe, a place to meet."
The victims of 9/11 who did not survive will always be victims, and should be honored and remembered as such. But even they wouldn't want to be remembered, or identified, solely by the label of "victim." As for the rest of us... well, we are survivors. But we are -- and need to be -- far more than that if we want to stop the cycle of violence that helps cause attacks like that in the first place. It's a tempering point worth remembering, even as we pause to honor the lives and memory of those who died.
How the election looks to backers of the Republican nominee
Perhaps the hardest thing to do in contemporary American politics is to imagine how the world looks from the other side. I’ve made no secret of why, as a Republican, I oppose Donald Trump and what he stands for. But I’ve also been talking to his supporters and advisors, trying to understand how they see and hear the same things that I do, and draw such very different conclusions. What follows isn’t a transcription—it’s a synthesis of the conversations I’ve had, and the insights I’ve gleaned, presented in the voice of an imagined Trump supporter.
“You people in the Acela corridor aren’t getting it. Again. You think Donald Trump is screwing up because he keeps saying things that you find offensive or off-the-wall. But he’s not talking to you. You’re not his audience, you never were, and you never will be. He’s playing this game in a different way from anybody you’ve ever seen. And he’s winning too, in a different way from anybody you’ve ever seen.
The most personally moving, and most fundamentally patriotic, moment of the Democratic National Convention was the appearance by the bereaved parents of Army Captain Humayun Khan, and the statement about the meaning of their son’s life and death, and about the Constitution, by Mr. Khizr Khan.
After Khizr Khan spoke, politicians and commentators on most networks said they were moved, humbled, inspired, choked up. (Commentators on Fox did not say these things, because their coverage cut away from the Khans for Brit Hume and Megyn Kelly, plus a Benghazi ad.)
Not the people—the term. How generational divisions have driven down voter turnout over the last century of American politics.
Throughout the 2016 U.S. presidential election, pundits and activists have debated how to get more Millennials involved in politics, always stressing their distinctive character. But it was actually this tendency to slice up the electorate into unique generations that drove young people from politics in the first place.
In the 19th century, children, youths, and adults “mingled freely together” at rowdy campaign rallies, lured by the holy trinity of booze, barbecue, and bonfire. Older citizens introduced young people to politics, helping to drive voter turnouts to their highest levels in U.S. history. “It’s the ‘big fellow,’” observed the Republicans canvassing in pool halls and saloons in the 1880s, who does the best job getting “the ‘little fellow”’ into politics.
Narcissism, disagreeableness, grandiosity—a psychologist investigates how Trump’s extraordinary personality might shape his possible presidency.
In 2006, Donald Trump made plans to purchase the Menie Estate, near Aberdeen, Scotland, aiming to convert the dunes and grassland into a luxury golf resort. He and the estate’s owner, Tom Griffin, sat down to discuss the transaction at the Cock & Bull restaurant. Griffin recalls that Trump was a hard-nosed negotiator, reluctant to give in on even the tiniest details. But, as Michael D’Antonio writes in his recent biography of Trump, Never Enough, Griffin’s most vivid recollection of the evening pertains to the theatrics. It was as if the golden-haired guest sitting across the table were an actor playing a part on the London stage.
“It was Donald Trump playing Donald Trump,” Griffin observed. There was something unreal about it.
Last night, in her overall very successful acceptance speech, Hillary Clinton said with ruthless precision about her opponent:
Ask yourself: Does Donald Trump have the temperament to be Commander-in-Chief?
Donald Trump can't even handle the rough-and-tumble of a presidential campaign.
He loses his cool at the slightest provocation. When he's gotten a tough question from a reporter. When he's challenged in a debate. When he sees a protestor at a rally.
Emphasis added, as it was in her delivery:
Imagine—if you dare, imagine—imagine him in the Oval Office facing a real crisis. A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.
I can’t put it any better than Jackie Kennedy did after the Cuban Missile Crisis. She said that what worried President Kennedy during that very dangerous time was that a war might be started—not by big men with self-control and restraint, but by little men—the ones moved by fear and pride.
A collection of books recommended by The Atlantic’s editors and writers
The Atlantic’s editors and writers share their recommendations for summer reading—new titles, old favorites, and others in between.
By Yaa Gyasi
In her first novel, Yaa Gyasi cleverly weaves the intergenerational tale of a family through a series of short, but interrelated stories set in what’s now Ghana during the mid-18th century. The two women at the center of the novel, Effia and Esi, are half-sisters who wind up on vastly different paths. One is captured during a battle between tribes, sold, and winds up on a slave ship bound for the U.S. The other—separated from her village and married off to a British slaver—ends up living on top of the dungeons that hold her own kin and hundreds of others who would also become slaves. The novel traces the lineage of these women through the tales of their children, and their children’s children, and so on—up until the present day.
A church facing setbacks elsewhere finds an unlikely foothold.
At the end of 2013, in the low-slung, industrial Taiwanese city of Kaohsiung, a bevy of officials came to attend the ribbon cutting of a huge former hotel that had undergone a top-to-bottom, multimillion-dollar renovation. Speaking before the throngs of celebrants who blocked the flow of traffic, Taiwan’s deputy director of the Ministry of the Interior praised the group that funded the renovation and presented them, for the 10th year straight, with the national “Excellent Religious Group” award.
“For years you have dedicated your time and lives to anti-drug work and human- rights dissemination,” said the director, echoing praise offered by the mayor’s office and the president’s national-policy adviser.
The World Well-Being Project uses Facebook updates to correlate language with personality traits.
Do our Facebook posts reflect our true personalities? Incrementally, probably not. But in aggregate, the things we say on social media paint a fairly accurate portrait of our inner selves. A team of University of Pennsylvania scientists is using Facebook status updates to find commonalities in the words used by different ages, genders, and even psyches.
“Governments have an increased interest in measuring not just economic outcomes but other aspects of well-being,” said Andrew Schwartz, a UPenn computer scientist who works on the project. “But it's very difficult to study well-being at a large scale. It costs a lot of money to administer surveys to see how people are doing in certain areas. Social media can help with that.”
Last month, my wife and I found ourselves in a disagreement about whether or not our apartment was clean enough for guests—the type of medium-sized disagreement that likely plagues all close relationships. In the midst of it, there was a lull and, feeling exhausted all of a sudden, I got up and left the living room. In the bedroom, I immediately fell face down into the sheets. The next thing I knew it was 20 minutes later and my wife was shaking me awake. I hadn’t meant to fall asleep; I just felt so fatigued in that moment that there was nothing else I could do.
This wasn’t new for me. A few weeks earlier, I had come into conflict with an acquaintance over some money. We were exchanging tense emails while I was at my office, and I began to feel the slow oozing onset of sleep, the same tiredness that came on when, as a child, I rode in the backseat of the car on the way home from some undesired trip. A sleepiness that overtakes the body slowly but surely and feels entirely outside of your control.
Learning how to bond with my daughter, who found comfort in the familiarity of being alone, has come through understanding reactive attachment disorder.
My hands hover over the computer keyboard. They are trembling. I hold down the shift key and type the words with intention, saying each letter aloud: “R-e-a-c-t-i-v-e A-t-t-a-c-h-m-e-n-t D-i-s-o-r-d-e-r.” The words “reactive attachment disorder” are memory beads I gather into a pile and attempt to string along on a necklace.
I think back to when Judith, my neighbor who is a psychiatrist, offhandedly threw out the term the first time she met Julia. We were talking about babies who start their lives in orphanages, and she mentioned the disorder. She wasn't suggesting that my daughter Julia showed any signs, but she’d said it was a well-known problem with children who’d been adopted from Romanian orphanages in the '80s and '90s. I remember nodding my head and thinking, Shut up, Judith. We got Julia young. It shouldn't be an issue.