TLDR: We think suffering tends to make us compassionate. Does it?
“Nothing is so powerful in making a man selfish as misfortune.”
That haunting line comes from Trollope’s not-entirely-successful novel Castle Richmond. Most of the drama within the Trollope novels I have read thus far centers upon relatively ordinary crises, which tend to arise from the peccadillos and vices of Trollope’s ‘heroes.’ They are dramatic—but are broadly middle-class, we might say, in their ethos. They tend to avoid the deep pathos that arises in confronting, say, the extremities of death or of poverty or the like. It’s all there, but it never seems to leave the mark that, say, Dickens’ writing does.
Castle Richmond, though, is one of the bleaker books from his pen I’ve read, at least so far. Herbert Fitzgerald is a wealthy title-holder, who competes with his cousin for the affections of a woman—and wins, largely on the grounds that he is wealthy and a title-holder while his cousin is not. Such happiness is hardly complete: it takes place beneath gathering storm clouds, which make it evident that the course of this love will most definitely not run smooth.
And, indeed, it doesn’t. Herbert is undone in the worst way imaginable: he learns his mother had married illegitimately, and that he is neither rightfully wealthy nor an heir. The blow is especially crushing, given that Trollope sets him up (as he does in many of his stories) as having a deep affection or love for honour and reputation. His immolation even includes the demand to relinquish his claim on his fiancée (of mere days), and the realization that his defeated competition for her hand is now both the heir of his title and the holder of all his future wealth.
It is within this condition that he comes across men working on his estate, who have their own complaints against God and man. The novel is set within the worst part of the Irish potato famine, from 1846-1847—so the complaints of the working class are manifold, and Herbert is the person to whom they would ordinarily turn. Herbert’s natural inclination i to hear and respond: ordinarily, he would hear them out and aid as he can. “But now,” Trollope writes, “on this day, with his own burden so heavy at his heart, he could not even do this. He could not think of their sorrows; his own sorrow seemed to him to be so much the heavier. So he passed on, running the gauntlet through them as best he might, and shaking them off from him, as they attempted to cling round his steps. Nothing is so powerful in making a man selfish as misfortune.”
This is a hard lesson, but an important one—and one I keep returning to. We tend these days to think of victims as being prone to compassion. Their own pain makes them acutely sensitive to the pain of others, we say. They are more alive to suffering, more likely to be able to sympathize with other victims as they are more likely to understand the evil within the injustice that is being done.
There’s doubtlessly some truth to understanding victims this way. But the case of Herbert shows some of the view’s limitations. For one, it indicates that if suffering does animate compassion—it does so only after it has passed. When one is suffering, it is almost impossible to think of anything else besides the immediate alleviation. And beyond that, it is easy in the midst of suffering to become more attached to one’s own well-being and interests than one was before.
But second, it suggests that the awareness of other peoples’ suffering might not generalize. That is, when we suffer in one particular way we often become inattentive to the diverse kinds of suffering and the peculiarities and particularities that each kind contains. A broken heart does not obviously make one alive to the starving stomaches in one’s employ.
This has bearing, I think, on how we think about victimhood and social justice advocacy within our current cultural maelstrom. In an important way, the experience of suffering is never really closed: we can’t always ‘move on,’ as we might wish to. But when the experience of being a victim of a wrong animates the pursuit of advocacy, it remains potent for us in a peculiar way. If that’s so, then the temptations that arise when we are in the midst of suffering carry on: the narrow focus that such victim-based advocacy demands is liable to blind us to the sufferings of other, rather than making us generally compassionate.