Today I was walking past a department store when a sudden commotion caught my 
attention. A young man was being frogmarched to a waiting police car by two 
constables - obviously he was a shoplifter who hadn't been as careful as he 
should have been. But what appalled me was that everyone around me - fellow 
pedestrians, people in coffee shops, those waiting at the bus stop - were 
almost universally smiling and exchanging knowing glances. I've noticed that 
reaction countless times in similar situations. But me: I just felt depressed. 
Here was a youth, perhaps on his way to prison. His mum and dad and sisters, 
his other relatives and his friends would be shocked and saddened by the news 
of his arrest. What is there to smile about for God's sake? It's a reaction 
I've noticed about other misfortunes. People see drug addicts in the final 
stages of degradation and judge these unfortunates as being "losers". I see the 
same people and wonder what sexual or physical abuse they suffered as children 
- or maybe as adults they encountered some other misfortune, perhaps having to 
see a loved one die slowly and painfully of cancer - and think to myself how 
lucky I am that I have never had to cope with such trauma. So is Seraphita a 
saint? Not bloody likely. I am as selfish, as self-centred, as narrowly 
concerned with my own well-being as anyone. The difference seems to be an 
ability to enter imaginatively into the suffering of others and appreciate what 
a raw deal they had. Of course, some shop-lifters and drug addicts are complete 
saddos and probably need a kick up the arse and told to get a grip. But many 
will have just been unlucky - and luck plays a dominant role in all our lives. 
Imagination is often dismissed as idle fancy but really it is a faculty in 
which we grasp real aspects of the world - just like perception and reason. But 
perhaps another cause for people to enjoy the misfortunes of others - complete 
strangers at that - is that they are unhappy ("The mass of men lead lives of 
quiet desperation." - Thoreau) and seeing someone worse off than themselves 
gives them a boost. They suddenly see that their own lives could be even more 
miserable so for a brief moment they can feel complacently self-satisfied. 
 Alas - according to Nietzsche - pity is just cruelty disguised. There's a lot 
to be said for that view - just observe carefully how your friends and 
colleagues savour reports of disasters on the latest news bulletins while 
convincing themselves how compassionate they are. So what can we conclude? That 
Seraphita is a hypocrite! Heads you win; tails I lose.

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