Pieces of fiction about the experiences of Others can be extremely helpful. They circulate stories and experiences, and help information reach far away readers. When reading a story, we are transferred to another world. The characters become our closest friends, and their issues become ours. It’s a wonderful experience, but it is very easy to disconnect it to reality.
When we enter these other worlds, it’s hard to forget that it’s truly our world, our Earth—just a fictional version of it. It’s easy to, in a way, glorify these experiences. To see them as legendary or mythical, and forget that real people go through these real things daily. It’s easy for these stories about Others to only alienate the Others more.
We see movies about girls carrying water in vases on their heads for miles. We read books about refugees fleeing death and gunfire that has consumed their homes. Yet instead of bringing us closer to these people, to creating a sense of similarity, we seethe with sympathy and grow our view of them as sufferers. Instead of increasing their humanity, these pieces of fiction can reduce them to their suffering, to their negative experiences. The person fleeing that death and gunfire, who is every day facing terrifying changes and situations, is transformed from a unique human being into just a Refugee. We simplify their complexity into just a label. Instead of being a person who had a complex and interesting life, who has complex and interesting emotions, and had a unique and traumatizing experience, they become just a story to be sorted into the general type of trauma they went through.
After placing a concrete label on these sufferers, we then place value only on their struggles. In the world we live in, suffering seems to come in different degrees, with the amount of sympathy given by onlookers dependent on the degree. This refugee lost his sister and his home, but was able to safely escape with the rest of his family, all in good health. Another refugee lost all of her family except her mother, who was severely wounded and lost the use of her arm. Should one refugee deserve more sympathy than the other? Should one receive more aid than the other? It’s as if those in developed countries have a certain amount of sympathy to expend, and choose who to give it to depending on the level of their struggles. Oh, you had to leave your entire home and country and life behind, but you didn’t lose any limbs and your family remains whole? Eh, I’ve heard worse. I’ll save my sympathy for someone with less remaining siblings.
You can see this sympathy dynamic all throughout our lives. Someone’s history of childhood abuse is only valid if they were beaten, if they have scars. Someone’s coming out story is only worth hearing if their parents disowned them. We compare our own struggles with others’ constantly in a corrupt effort to justify ourselves. It’s like a tragedy competition. Whoever is the most miserable gets the sympathy and a gold star!
While understanding the suffering of others is good, while feeling sympathy for those struggling is helpful, it’s incredibly harmful to reduce those who are suffering and struggling to just their misfortunes. It transforms a room of individuals with unique experiences into a mass who all have the same label. The focus of the life of the sufferers becomes their suffering. It’s not their hobbies or interests, nor their personality or traits. They are reduced into something less than human.
It’s so important to resist this, to remember that every single one of us here on this world is more than our negative experiences, more than the harm that we have been subject to, more than the trauma we carry with us. Yes, refugees deserve sympathy and care. But it’s not because they lost their leg, or lost their family. It’s because they aren’t labels, and they aren’t stories we hear about. They are real life, bona fide human beings.