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.
After more than a year of rumors and speculation, Bruce Jenner publicly came out as transgender with four simple words: “I am a woman.”
“My brain is much more female than male,” he explained to Diane Sawyer, who conducted a prime-time interview with Jenner on ABC Friday night. (Jenner indicated he prefers to be addressed with male pronouns at this time.) During the two-hour program, Jenner discussed his personal struggle with gender dysphoria and personal identity, how they shaped his past and current relationships and marriages, and how he finally told his family about his gender identity.
During the interview, Sawyer made a conspicuous point of discussing broadly unfamiliar ideas about gender and sexuality to its audience. It didn't always go smoothly; her questions occasionally came off as awkward and tone-deaf. But she showed no lack of empathy.
A magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck Nepal early on Saturday, centered 10 miles below the surface, less than 50 miles from the capital of Kathmandu. At least 1,100 are already reported to have been killed by the quake and subsequent avalanches triggered in the Himalayas. Historic buildings and temples were destroyed, leaving massive piles of debris in streets as rescue workers and neighbors work to find and help those still trapped beneath rubble. Below are images from the region of the immediate aftermath of one of the most powerful earthquakes to strike Nepal in decades. (Editor's note, some of the images are graphic in nature.)
In her new book No One Understands You and What To Do About It, Heidi Grant Halvorson tells readers a story about her friend, Tim. When Tim started a new job as a manager, one of his top priorities was communicating to his team that he valued each member’s input. So at team meetings, as each member spoke up about whatever project they were working on, Tim made sure he put on his “active-listening face” to signal that he cared about what each person was saying.
But after meeting with him a few times, Tim’s team got a very different message from the one he intended to send. “After a few weeks of meetings,” Halvorson explains, “one team member finally summoned up the courage to ask him the question that had been on everyone’s mind.” That question was: “Tim, are you angry with us right now?” When Tim explained that he wasn’t at all angry—that he was just putting on his “active-listening face”—his colleague gently explained that his active-listening face looked a lot like his angry face.
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Today was the latest installment of the never-ending Clinton scandal saga, but it won’t be the last. Yet in some ways, the specifics are a distraction. The sale of access was designed into the post-2001 Clinton family finances from the start. Probably nobody will ever prove that this quid led to that quo … but there’s about a quarter-billion-dollar of quid heaped in plain sight and an equally impressive pile of quo, and it’s all been visible for years to anyone who cared to notice. As Jonathan Chait, who is no right-wing noise-machine operator, complained: “The Clintons have been disorganized and greedy.”
“All of this amounts to diddly-squat,” pronounced long-time Clinton associate James Carville when news broke that Hillary Clinton had erased huge numbers of emails. That may not be true: If any of the conduct in question proves illegal, destroying relevant records may also have run afoul of the law.
The editors of Smithsonian magazine have announced the winners of their 12th annual photo contest, selected from more than 26,500 entries. The winning photographs from from the competition's six categories are published below: The Natural World, Travel, People, Americana, Altered Images and Mobile. Also, a few finalists have been included as well. Captions were written by the photographers. Be sure to visit the contest page at Smithsonian.com to see all the winners and finalists.
Leon Trotsky is not often invoked as a management guru, but a line frequently attributed to him would surely resonate with many business leaders today. “You may not be interested in war,” the Bolshevik revolutionary is said to have warned, “but war is interested in you.” War, or at least geopolitics, is figuring more and more prominently in the thinking and fortunes of large businesses.
Of course, multinational companies such as Shell and GE have long cultivated an expertise in geopolitics. But the intensity of concern over global instability is much higher now than in any recent period. In 2013, the private-equity colossus KKR named the retired general and CIA director David Petraeus as the chairman of its global institute, which informs the firm’s investment decisions. Earlier this year, Sir John Sawers, the former head of MI6, Britain’s CIA, became the chairman of Macro Advisory Partners, a firm that advises businesses and governments on geopolitics. Both appointments are high-profile examples of a much wider trend: an increasing number of corporations are hiring political scientists, starting their board meetings with geopolitical briefings, and seeking the advice of former diplomats, spymasters, and military leaders.“The last three years have definitely been a wake-up call for business on geopolitics,” Dominic Barton, the managing director of McKinsey, told me. “I’ve not seen anything like it. Since the Second World War, I don’t think you’ve seen such volatility.” Most businesses haven’t pulled back meaningfully from globalized operation, Barton said. “But they are thinking, Gosh, what’s next?”
When healthcare is at its best, hospitals are four-star hotels, and nurses, personal butlers at the ready—at least, that’s how many hospitals seem to interpret a government mandate.
When Department of Health and Human Services administrators decided to base 30 percent of hospitals’ Medicare reimbursement on patient satisfaction survey scores, they likely figured that transparency and accountability would improve healthcare. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) officials wrote, rather reasonably, “Delivery of high-quality, patient-centered care requires us to carefully consider the patient’s experience in the hospital inpatient setting.” They probably had no idea that their methods could end up indirectly harming patients.
In 1996, Chuck Palahniuk spun a seven-page short story into his first full-length novel. Three years later, the director David Fincher immortalized Fight Club’s manic protagonists on film with the help of Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, and Helena Bonham Carter. Surpassing cult status with its anti-consumerism message, the story captured the frustrations of the worker bees getting through the day's soulless pursuits. And it struck a chord: Real fight clubs sprung up around the world. “Tyler Durden Lives” became familiar graffiti. A new, widely quoted lexicon was born. Today, everyone knows the first rule of fight club.
At turns deeply poignant and very funny, Palahniuk’s freakish fables capture a twisted zeitgeist and add an oddly inspirational and subversive voice to the contemporary canon. For those shackled to tired routines and coping mechanisms, his Fight Club characters offer the DIY rules for rebirth. This month, the story gets its own resurrection in the form of a 10-issue comic-book series titled Fight Club 2, out May 27. Penned by Palahniuk and illustrated by Cameron Stewart (Catwoman, The Other Side) the first installment picks up the narrative 10 years later, on the ninth wedding anniversary of the narrator and his partner Marla. In the post-9/11 present, a hyperactive, Internet-obsessed, war- and recession-weary America apparently needs Tyler again.
Our patient—we’ll call him W.B.—is a 56-year-old father of three who, until last year, had always been healthy. He had worked his entire life, in jobs ranging from automotive repair to sales, taking great pride in providing for his family, even though doing so had recently meant combining three part-time positions. All of that ended in February 2014, when he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. A neurodegenerative disease characterized by progressive muscle weakness, ALS leads to the loss of all voluntary movement, difficulty breathing, and, in the end, death.
W.B.’s life was turned upside down by the diagnosis. But once the initial shock passed, he began researching his condition intensively. He learned that he was unlikely to survive five years, and that in the meantime his quality of life would diminish dramatically. With limited options, many patients retreat. But, quite bravely, W.B. had other ideas. After much consideration, he decided that if he was going to die, he would like to try to save another person’s life in the process, even if that person was a stranger. And so last May he approached the University of Wisconsin’s transplant program, where we are surgeons, as a prospective organ donor.