Altruism born of suffering
By Ervin Staub
Most people who are victims of abuse or violence, especially intense, repeated violence, are deeply affected. This is true whether they are victimized in their families, by strangers, or because they are members of an ethnic, religious, or political group. Researchers have noted that many such victimized people become aggressive in turn. From my studies of violence between groups, I concluded that intense harm makes groups of people feel vulnerable and see the world as dangerous. Without healing from the psychological wounds created by the harm done to them, in response to new threats they may feel the need to defend themselves aggressively, even when this is not necessary.
But looking around the world, we can also see that many people who have suffered become caring and helpful. I became interested in what I call altruism born of suffering when I prepared a questionnaire for Psychology Today on Values and Helping in 1989. Over 7,000 people filled out and returned the questionnaires, many of them with accompanying letters, as I asked. Some of them wrote some variation of , ‘I help others because I suffered (or because I was harmed), and I do not want others to suffer as I did.' *
When I began to think and write about altruism born of suffering, there was only indirect information about it, from studies of Holocaust survivors and survivors of other violence that focused on other matters. There were, however, many examples. A woman whose mother died when she was very young, whose drunken father abandoned her, and who was divorced from a violent husband, created an orphanage for children in Vietnam. A man severely abused by parents created and led a human service agency. Men and women who survived genocide worked to prevent violence.
My former student (now a professor), Johanna Vollhardt, and I found a surprising degree of altruism born of suffering. In a study some participants reported that they have suffered because of abuse or violence against them in their families, because of harmful behavior against them as members of a group, or because of natural disasters. Months later they expressed more empathy with, and feelings of responsibility for helping people affected by the tsunami in Asia in 2004, and volunteered more to collect donations for them, than people who reported that they have not suffered. They also volunteered more for causes that involved helping people.
What experiences lead people who have suffered to become altruists? How do they avoid closing off to the world, how do they come to care about others' welfare? Since many millions of people suffer every year from violence in their homes or against their group and from its consequences such as displacement, disease, and hunger, and millions suffer from natural disasters, such questions are of great importance. The trauma psychiatrist, Bessel van der Kolk, wrote in 2009, that in the U.S. alone "...each year three million children...are reported by Child Protective Services for abuse and neglect," with many certainly not reported.
Currently there is great violence between groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Afghanistan, and violence in inner cities in the US, and other places. If people who have suffered turn against other people, or just turn away from and ignore harm done to others, we shall live in an increasingly violent world.
The available information suggests that a number of experiences may contribute to altruism born of suffering. One of these is people being helped some way at the time of their suffering. A neighbor showing kindness to a child who is harshly treated at home tells this child that there is love in the world, that life does not have to be the way it was at home. Such "active bystandership" does not just relieve suffering, but also shapes who the person we help will become. Another contributor is people being able to help themselves to some degree or to help others at the time of suffering. When people do that, they learn that they can shape their future. Holocaust survivors who became peace activists in Israel reported both that they were able to act in their own behalf and that others have helped them.
Healing, by talking about one's suffering to empathic others, through commemorations of surviving violence against one's group, or in other ways, also contributes. Support from individuals and community, society embracing those who have suffered, is of great value. After some of these experiences people may be ready to begin to help others, "learning by doing" further changing them.
We want to prevent violence and other harmful actions. But when we cannot, promoting altruism born of suffering can help prevent more violence and suffering.
Ervin Staub's latest book is Overcoming Evil: Genocide, Violent Conflict and Terrorism, 2011.
Articles about altruism born of suffering can be found under downloads at www.ervinstaub.com (Staub, 2005, The roots of goodness; Staub and Vollhardt, 2008, Altruism born of suffering)
*The findings from this survey are described in Chapter 9 in Staub, E. (2003). The psychology of good and evil: Why children, adults and groups help and harm others .New York: Cambridge University Press