I Prefer Not To

“Up to a certain point,” observes the narrator in Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, “the thought or sight of misery enlists our best affections; but, in certain special cases, beyond that point it does not.” At some point, suffering stops inspiring pity and starts engendering revulsion. Suffering is so repulsive men often cannot bear to look, let alone get close enough to help.

There are several reasons for this. For one thing, the suffering of others reminds one of his own mortality and vulnerability, thoughts that many people would surely prefer to ignore. These thoughts can even be so powerful that one simply cannot bear them.

Another, less justifiable sort of selfishness can also cause a sort of resentment of other people’s suffering. One works hard to make his life as comfortable as possible; this can create a sense of entitlement. Since he has worked hard to safeguard himself against woe and want, he feels entitled to live in a world gated off from the suffering of others.

But selfishness is not the only reason people are repulsed by suffering and attempt to cast off all thoughts of it. Occasionally, one observes a suffering that he can simply do nothing to alleviate. Sometimes there is no balm one can offer, especially when the pain of another is not bodily pain, but distress of the soul.

“I might give alms to his body; but his body did not pain him; it was his soul that suffered, and his soul I could not reach.”

Beer of the Week: Damburger Export – This is not a very good beer. It has almost no aroma, it goes down like water and it has a hint of metal in the aftertaste. The best thing this beer has going for it is that although the head dissipated very quickly, there was actually some very significant lacing on the glass. I would probably Damburger again if no other beer were available, but in the words of Bartleby:  “I prefer not to.”

Reading of the week: Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville, excerpt – This is a strangely haunting short story that is “not an easy read.” The reader learns almost nothing about Bartleby except that he is a troubled soul.

Question of the week: If suffering is so repugnant to people, what was the attraction of the classic freak show or of the gladiatorial games?

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