Tuesday, March 16, 2010
The Power of Perspective

Yesterday, I attended a Japanese film festival (called Eiga Sai) which is a yearly event held across different venues in the country. This year's theme revolves around eye-opening documentaries which brings to light social realities that are often taken for granted. In particular, I saw two films which focus on the human condition to varying degrees.

The first one we watched is entitled "A Permanent Part-Timer in Distress", a film that takes an in-depth look into the life of a part-time worker suffering through the soul-crushing drudgery of a monotonous job that offers no benefits or security. Iwabuchi is a young graduate who dreams about having a more fulfilling career as a full-time employee. However, he feels powerless against circumstances which, from his point of view, cannot be changed for the better.

The other film we saw was "Basura", and this too deals with the matter of suffering. This documentary follows the lives of Filipino families who make a living from wading through heaps of smoldering garbage. For the people living through the daily horror of scavenging just to survive, dignity takes a backseat.

It could be argued that the people featured in both films feel just as bad about their respective situations even though they're experiencing different levels of difficulty. But you could also say that the part-timer from the first documentary wouldn't be so desperate about his plight if he knew about the kind of lives the garbage scavengers lead.

It's ironic to think that the people who are forced to hunt through trash have the capacity to find humor in spite of their circumstances. It's funny that they can laugh about their situation while Iwabuchi - who lives in a dormitory provided by his agency - can't afford himself the same sense of humor, even for just a few moments.

It was in this context that made me recall something I read from a book called "Man's Search for Meaning" by Viktor Frankl. The author is a psychologist who was forced to endure sub-human conditions at a Nazi concentration camp during the Holocaust. Drawing upon his personal experiences, he derived a number of important lessons about the human condition such as the passage below:

"The attempt to develop a sense of humor and to see things in a humorous light is some kind of a trick learned while mastering the art of living. Yet it is possible to practice the art of living even in a concentration camp, although suffering is omnipresent. To draw an analogy: a man's suffering is similar to the behavior of gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the "size" of human suffering is absolutely relative.

It also follows that a very trifling thing can cause the greatest of joys. Take as an example something that happened on our journey from Auschwitz to the camp affiliated with Dachau. We had all been afraid that our transport was heading for the Mauthausen camp. We became more and more tense as we approached a certain bridge over the Danube which the train would have to cross to reach Mauthausen, according to the statement of experienced traveling companions. Those who have never seen anything similar cannot possibly imagine the dance of joy performed in the carriage by the prisoners when they saw that our transport was not crossing the bridge and was instead heading "only" for Dachau."

So what I'm really getting at is that your own biases and psychological filters matter a great deal when you talk about suffering. If other people can rise above such conditions, we can certainly do the same in our own lives. It's really just a matter of approaching things in the most constructive way possible. More importantly, we're often presented with the choice to simply react to a situation or do something about it instead.