Once upon a time, years and years ago, I sat down with a soon-to-be-retired woman, a court stenographer, a particularly good one, a woman who showed me, proudly, a book she'd written, a guide to the kind of stenography she did for most of her life. I remember where we sat, and I remember her, her face and feisty-ness, her ebullient personality; but from the long interview and the story I wrote about her, I remember only one aside.
She mentioned how tedious she often found divorce proceedings, having to record every word from the mouths of snarling husbands and wives telling the tales that had led them to think they couldn't live another day with that man or that woman. I swear I remember her rolling her eyes. "'My word, lady,' I'd say to myself. 'Get over it.'" That's what she told me she couldn't help thinking. "'Who on earth doesn't go through that? I could tell you worse. Get a life!'"
It wasn't a joke. She was dead-on serious. Whether or not she and her husband ever came to blows I didn't ask, but she gave me every reason to believe that marriage--hers or others--wasn't always the sweet song some dreamy-eyed Facebook folks make it out to be.
I bring that up because of an NPR story, one of those aired by Shankar Vedantam, who does occasional stories on hot research in the social sciences. This one is truly man-bites-dog. People who suffer through a particular difficulty--let's just say migranes--tend to have less sympathy for others who suffer likewise. You read that right--less sympathy, not more.
Seriously? Years ago, a distant family member suffered through the death of a child, an adult. I attended what we call here "the visitation," a wake-like event when hundreds of well-wishers drop to say what they can in relief. The two of us lived a long ways from our mutual neighborhood, and I told myself I was the only relative at the visitation, the only family.
He did little more than shake my hand because his attention was fixed--it was obvious--on the guy behind me in line, a man who, like him, had lost a son. I wouldn't be surprised if both of them squeezed tears from the great embrace those two suffering fathers shared.
Yet, new behavioral research suggests that, like the court reporter, if you've slogged through muddy battlefields yourself, you may well be tougher on those who are similarly bogged down.
Seriously? Yes, say Rachel Ruttan, Loran Nordgren and Mary-Hunter McDonnell at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. "Compared to people who've never been unemployed, those who've experienced unemployment show less compassion to people currently dealing with unemployment," Vedantam explained. "It's not so much, I think, you're less likely to care. You're more likely to think, if I can get through this and I can find a job, so can you."
If that research is right, then what makes AA so very successful isn't mutual sympathy but mutual discipline.
An old friend was going through some emotional depression. I mentioned it to another old friend, a battle-weary vet of his own wars. "What he needs," he said of the other guy, "is someone to kick him."
I was shocked and even saddened, but new research says I shouldn't be. When we've gone through the hard, hard work of putting something huge behind us, it's easier for us to believe someone else can--even should--too.
Still, I find it amazing and counter-intuitive. But then, as the Bible says, we are fearfully and wonderfully made. What a surprise it is, sometimes, to be human.