The walls of his apartment are filled with photos of horror, agony and suffering. Framed and hung throughout the rooms are dust covered photos of mothers falling headfirst off 4 story fire escapes. Naked, napalmed children screaming while shedding their scorched skin. A man plunging from one of the towers at 9/11. Black protesters beaten with clubs and attacked with dogs. There are photos of the prisoners at Auschwitz. And photos of skeletal, emaciated African babies waiting to be picked apart by vultures.
The man lives with these and many more macabre imagines because they haunt and agonize him. He is not a sadist. They give him no pleasure, rather a perpetual feeling of extreme discomfort and unease. These imagines make him nauseous and anxious and full of despair. They make his days difficult to bear and his nights even worse.
So I asked him why he surrounds himself with these images.
“Because it’s impossible to see so much horror and suffering and not feel it yourself. Unlike most men, I don’t seek shelter from the horrors of the world. I don’t hide from them with drink or women or gambling. Instead, I face the harsh reality of it all day and night.”
“In this way, the suffering in these photographs is your suffering too?” I asked.
“In this way, yes,” he said.
“Why not do more with your life than merely suffer?” I asked.
“Like what?” he asked. “What is more courageous – more self-sacrificing – than carrying the burdens of the world’s suffering?”
“Anything else,” I said. “Anything is better than useless suffering. Anything else at least offers the opportunity to inject some decency into this rotten world you surround yourself with. Rather than suffer in your uselessness, what about suffering in some usefulness?”
“I may fail,” he admitted.
“In suffering? Or in being useful?”
“In being useful, of course,” he said.
“Yes, you may fail in being of use to anyone but yourself. But your useless suffering is already a failure, no matter the perverse and conceited sense of meaning and purpose you’ve wrung out of it.”
He asked me to leave. I asked what he planned to do for the remainder of the day and evening.
“I will mourn. I will mourn for these poor souls and their suffering” he said. “And I will cry myself into a fitful sleep. And when I wake, I will mourn some more and cry myself to sleep again.”
“Yours is a most sensitive soul,” I said. “But I wonder, have you looked out into the street lately? Do you ever open the curtains to see the hunger, poverty and loneliness of real people? And, if so, how has this affected your sensitive soul?”
“No,” he said. “I don’t look outside. There’s too much crying to be done within these walls. Perhaps I can bear no more suffering than what already surrounds me. Besides, my eyes are already too red and welted to see past my window, so it would be pointless. The sunlight burns my eyes. Eyes as sensitive as my grieving heart. My weary, bloodshot eyes, so enflamed and tender from so much weeping and sleeplessness. And of an evening, in the darkness outside, there is nothing to be seen but the emptiness of night, so why look?”
“Now please leave me,” he said. “I beg you now, please leave. For my suffering awaits me, and it is not comfortable in the company of strangers.”