I recently overheard, and then jumped into, a conversation in the halls of Pardes (a truly wonderful place) about whether the experience of suffering placed an extra burden on the sufferers to better act to prevent further suffering. In practical parlance, the common argument goes: ‘Jews suffered immeasurably during the Holocaust (and throughout their history) and so should be particularly sensitive both to not inflicting anything resembling such suffering on others and to crying out against the infliction of such suffering anywhere it crops up.’ Leaving aside that particular argument, I really identify with a sentiment that I see as leading towards the common view I just articulated.
I see this argument as being based on the idea that the suffering that Jews have experienced in the past creates (or ought to create) an empathetic bond to those currently suffering. This has played out in my own life. When asked, for the first time in my life (that I can remember) what my worst experience in my life was, I hesitated and then answered being bullied was the worst (set of) experience(s) in my life. This post isn’t about the particulars, and I don’t really think they need to be rehashed. The important point is that, in light of the above conversation/debate, I can see a clear connection between my own experiences being bullied and an affinity I have had over the years towards those who have either experienced similar bullying or are otherwise feeling marginalized in a social group I find myself a part of. I am not a big believer in phenomena not backed up by scientific fact, but the reality is that a vast majority of our communication is non-verbal, and it would not shock me if I was silently communicating my own empathy for victims of bullying to all those looking for such a signal.
My real response, then, to the argument that got me thinking about the connection between shared suffering and empathy or a heightened responsibility to act, is that such an imperative to act is the least we who have suffered, in any way, can do. Acting to end present and potential future suffering out of a desire to eradicate the pain that oneself has experienced is the type of selfishness I can get behind.