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From suffering to compassion … A look at the East African famine

Recent images of emaciated and dead bodies in drought-stricken Somalia surface many emotions.  Although we are witnessing the situation from afar we are not immune to it. Catastrophic events such as famines, floods, earthquakes and war truly affect one’s psyche or soul and give occasions for self-reflection. 

Media reports and images may cause a person to feel helpless, powerless, frightened, disillusioned, angry and bitter. One may even feel a sense of victimization and injustice about what is happening.  

Witnessing the psychically foreign and unjust treatment of others often affect one’s worldview. In these situations, our somewhat naïve and idealistic beliefs in how the world is seen and should operate are so abruptly uprooted that we cannot help but feel confused and distressed. 

A New York Times article stated that Shabab fighters were blocking rivers to steal water from impoverished villagers. This narcissistic position of the Shabab militants shows a grotesque lack of consideration for the needs and feelings of others. The power-driven mindset is dualist in thinking and is based upon an ‘either us or them’ or ‘win-lose’ mentality.

Reports that even United Nations contractors are being accused of siphoning food aid, resulting in cuts in life-saving assistance, only add to one’s infuriation around the situation.  

What is this infuriation about? At the root may be a power-over or domination theme (often rooted in colonialism) in which collective forces (and in this case, the military) control weaker groups for their own advantage. Have you ever experienced (albeit perhaps on a smaller scale) anything similar to this? 

The discomfort and anger may be caused by not being able to make sense of the situation. When we observe such discrepancies we try to make sense of the events by asking, “Why is this happening?” or “What is really going on here?”  Existential psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl suggested that if some meaning or sense of purpose can be found, it makes most suffering more bearable. 

Cataclysmic events such as the Somali famine force us to acknowledge the humbling fact that uncontrollable evil, greed, and cruelty exist in life whether caused by natural phenomena or human nature. We are faced with the shadowy elements in humans, including those found in our self.

At the same time, these horrific situations evoke huge outpourings of empathy, generosity and compassion. As Helen Keller stated, “Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.” 

Studies have discovered that mirror neurons exist in the brain which enable one to share the experiences of others. Thus, mirror neurons are one of the main drivers of empathy and are no doubt operating while we witness the Somali events and with other incidents of human suffering. 

Empathy allows one to experience feelings with another. Compassion perhaps takes one into a more soulful connection with others and moves one into taking action. As the Dalai Lama stated, “Compassion and love are not mere luxuries. As the source both of inner and external peace, they are fundamental to the continued survival of our species.” In the face of suffering, hope comes with compassion.

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Diane Hancox, MA, CCC provides counselling services to Parksville, Qualicum Beach, Nanaimo and Vancouver Island.