It seems to be part of the job of a human being to suffer and feel sorrow. But in addition to experiencing these things, and in contrast to most other living creatures, we not only have to feel them, but also to know what we are feeling.
Existentially this seems to require life to provide us with a fluidly chimerical, ever changing yardstick of contentments and happinesses by which to measure these sufferings and sadnesses of ours and hopefully more than counterbalance them.
Now I am ‘neutral in knowing’ – agnostic – about religious beliefs and ideas, if not about their importance, so please don’t think I am beating any particular religious drum in asking you to now consider Albrecht Durer’s ‘Man of Sorrows’ (1493)*. Is there is a more accurate depiction of a bored and jaded sorrower? He faces you, in a caricature of what would now be called a relaxed manspread, one leg up, (on a bench? which isn’t visible). His pose would jauntily signify the energy of his godliness if it weren’t for his wounds and the miserable expression on his face. With his genitals against what looks like a wooden table top, he is listlessly cupping his sceptre in his left hand. The elbow of his other (right) arm is on his raised knee so that he can lean his cheek on his hand. There is nothing nonchalant about his pseudo-relaxed pose. His head bleeds decorous little drops of blood from the ironic mock-crown of briars on his head, and a switch – the one with which he was whipped? – lies on his own lap. Like Sisyphus in an older belief system, endlessly repeating his duty to suffer, his direct stare is more telling than his wounds and it speaks of how boring and depressing it is having to be a person of sorrows, but making it clear he understands it is actually his duty so to be. But what then, more precisely and exactly, is his duty? It is to feel our pain. And not that he seems to expect it any time soon, but he looks as if he might also even be grateful if in return we might be kind enough to feel his pain too.
What we humans can do perhaps better than most, though by no means all, other species, is engage in those on-going, multifarious communications we call relationships. And an essential element in any relationship of any value is empathy. That is, a feeling for what it is like for someone else. And embedded in empathy is a sense of morality defined as a consistent feeling of wanting to show care and consideration for him or her.
Above and beyond the fact that at times sorrow and suffering seems to be a necessary condition of the human experience, this picture reminds us that being in a state of chronic hopelessness as we suffer ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’, we no longer expect empathy. But actually most people are nice, we do have empathy and we do need it. Especially when we have given up all hope of it!
* Here is a link to the picture, if you want to look at it:
Blog written by Caroline Cairns Clery, Family Psychotherapist at The Surrey Centre
For more information on Carrie, visit: TheSurreyCentre/Counsellors