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How to Be with Each Other’s Suffering: Elie Wiesel on the Antidote to Our Paralysis in the Face of World-Overwhelm

How to Be with Each Other’s Suffering: Elie Wiesel on the Antidote to Our Paralysis in the Face of World-Overwhelm

There is a phenomenon in forests known as inosculation — the fusing together of separate trees into a single organism after their branches or roots have been entwined for a long time. Sometimes, one of the former individuals may be cut or broken at the base, but it remains fully alive through its sinewy fusion with the former other. This is no longer symbiosis between two distinct organisms but a hybrid new organism fully sharing in the resources of life.

Everything alive has the potential for inosculation in one form or another. That, perhaps, is what the great naturalist John Muir meant when he observed that when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” To be proper citizens of that universe is to recognize ourselves as particles of it, indelibly linked to every other particle — particles each minuscule but majestic with possibility; it is to recognize that, as Dr. King observed, “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.”

Few have captured the responsibility and power of that mutuality more passionately, nor lived them more fully, than Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel (September 30, 1928–July 2, 2016).

Elie Wiesel

In Conversations with Elie Wiesel (public library), the Biblical question Cain poses to God after killing Abel — “Am I my brother’s keeper?” — becomes a lens on what makes for brotherhood in the broadest humanistic sense. Wiesel reflects:

We are all our brothers’ keepers… Either we see in each other brothers, or we live in a world of strangers… There are no strangers in a world that becomes smaller and smaller. Today I know right away when something happens, whatever happens, anywhere in the world. So there is no excuse for us not to be involved in these problems. A century ago, by the time the news of a war reached another place, the war was over. Now people die and the pictures of their dying are offered to you and to me while we are having dinner. Since I know, how can I not transform that knowledge into responsibility? So the key word is “responsibility.” That means I must keep my brother.

Whenever we quiet the voices of so-called civilization — the voices of selfing and hard-edged individualism — that sense of the interconnectedness of life and of lives becomes audible. And yet we are habitually deafened to it by a kind of desensitization — the kind the poet May Sarton so poignantly captured as she contemplated how to live with tenderness in a harsh world. Much of it, Wiesel observes, is a form of paralysis that comes from the sheer mismatch between the scale of the problems the world hurls at us and our individual locus of agency — a particular pathology of the information age, further exploited by the news media and their crisis-mongering. Wiesel considers the consequence:

We are careless. Somehow life has been cheapened in our own eyes. The sanctity of life, the sacred dimension of every minute of human existence, is gone. The main problem is that there are so many situations that demand our attention. There are so many tragedies that need our involvement. Where do you begin?

With an eye to a central problem of our time — how to live with wisdom in the age of information — he adds:

We know too much. No, let me correct myself. We are informed about too many things. Whether information is transformed into knowledge is a different story, a different question.

He traces the emotional attrition that happens when we are bombarded with news of crises and traumatic events — at first deeply moved and invested in allaying the suffering we see, we grow exhausted by trauma-sighting and help-canvassing, just as news of the latest calamity or injustice is piling atop the previous one:

You couldn’t take it. There is a need to remember, and it may last only a day or a week at a time. We cannot remember all the time. That would be impossible; we would be numb. If I were to remember all the time, I wouldn’t be able to function. A person who is sensitive, always responding, always listening, always ready to receive someone else’s pain… how can one live?

Art by Kay Nielsen from East of the Sun and West of the Moon, 1914. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

The antidote to this paralysis, Wiesel argues, is small action — a testament to Hannah Arendt’s conviction that “the smallest act in the most limited circumstances bears the seed of… boundlessness, because one deed, and sometimes one word, suffices to change every constellation.” A century and a half after Van Gogh insisted that “however meaningless and vain, however dead life appears, the man of faith, of energy, of warmth… steps in and does something,” Wiesel insists on choosing from among the innumerable causes soliciting your attention and aid just one in which to get involved — an act seemingly small that, on the cumulative scale of humanity, moves the world.

The greatest challenge facing us all, however, is how to be with each other’s suffering. In consonance with the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s insight that “when you love someone, the best thing you can offer that person is your presence,” Wiesel considers the wellspring of universal love and brotherhood:

I believe in dialogue. I believe if people talk, and they talk sincerely, with the same respect that one owes to a close friend or to God, something will come out of that, something good. I would call it presence. I would like my students to be presence whenever people need a human presence. I urge very little upon my students, but that is one thing I do. To people I love, I wish I could say, “I will suffer in your place.” But I cannot. Nobody can. Nobody should. I can be present, though. And when you suffer, you need a presence.

[…]

If there is a governing precept in my life, it is that: If somebody needs me, I must be there.

Brother’s keeper — inosculation at work. (Photograph: @lily_kdwong.)

Couple this fragment of the wholly vitalizing Conversations with Elie Wiesel with Wiesel’s stirring Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, then revisit Nick Cave on the antidote to our existential helplessness and the pioneering X-ray crystallographer and peace activist Kathleen Lonsdale on moral courage and our personal power.