Queen for a Day was a radio show that began in 1945, switched to TV, and ran until 1964. I would occasionally watch it when I was home sick from school. The format was consistent: four contestants, all housewives, were invited to tell a story about their financial and/or emotional travails. The host would then ask them what they needed, and each would reply, invariably in tears, of the medical equipment required for their disabled child, the repairs needed after a fire or flood, the loss of a job, or something. Each of the stories involved heartache, fear, anxiety and desperate need. The audience would then vote on the neediest contestant, and whoever received the most applause on the “applause-o-meter” would be declared the winner. She would then be swaddled in a red velvet robe, given a golden crown and 12 long-stemmed roses, and receive everything she asked for — plus some extras that the show’s sponsors provided (which were clearly and repeatedly identified). She was Queen for a Day. Each show would end with the host wishing that every woman could be queen every day.
On one level the show was a demonstration of human compassion for women experiencing trauma. That certainly was the narrative the show’s sponsors promoted. On another level the show celebrated victimhood and had the audacity to rank people’s pain. There was also an element of schadenfreude to the show which reaped great profits for the show’s sponsors; schadenfreude being the pleasure one can experience when viewing someone else’s pain. We can witness the pain, feel badly about it — but in the voyeuristic dynamic set up by the show was that the audience could distance themselves from it. Even enjoy it, because it was not happening to us. From their own place of comfort, security and distance, the audience could clap themselves on their backs for their compassion.
In an ironic, if not a bizarre and egregious way, elements of Queen for a Day are being acted out on the world’s stage. The War between Hamas and Israel has become ground zero for the world’s pain. Accounts of the story are being shown and told on every platform; we don’t need to stay home from school to absorb it. There are innumerable other places of pain across the globe, but the combination of atrocity, media coverage, relationships so many have with people on all sides in the Middle East— our primary attention is drawn there. And it is awful. The pain is intense and unrelenting. A rabbi friend of mine commented that the level of pain is so deep and long-standing on both the Israeli and Palestinian side that neither can acknowledge the pain of the other.
And for the rest of the world — drawn into this vortex of misery, there are a variety of responses that we see played out across the globe — despair and hopelessness on one end of a continuum— and schadenfreude and a ranking of pain on the other. Who has it worse? Who needs to be punished? How can I keep my emotional distance? If one side is rewarded with what they ask for, can we give them some roses and a crown and some prizes — and then declare it to be all over?
Any time a system is under stress, there is a tendency to default to an unhealthy triangle of persecutor, victim and rescuer. The unhealthy triangle shows up in any system that is beleaguered by pain – be it a family, an organization or a country. The Middle East is under incredible stress — as is so much of the rest of the world. Queen For a Day preyed on the victim/rescuer axis. The War between Hamas and Israel involves all three — persecutor, victim and rescuer. The intensity of the pain of Israelis and Palestinians in Israel/Gaza inevitably evokes moments in our own lives when we found ourselves on at least one side of the unhealthy triangle. Which then leads to the temptation to respond with one of the other sides — particularly to be a rescuer or persecutor.
Jesus spent his life — indeed gave his life, to collapse the unhealthy triangle. He acknowledged the world’s pain and took it on. So did Mahatma Gandhi. So did Martin Luther King. So did Nelson Mandela, and he was sentenced to prison for life instead of sentenced to death, which is what everyone expected to happen at the time. So does Malala Yousafzai, a young Pakistani woman who survived a Taliban shooting and worked for the rights for every child to receive an education; she received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014.
There are others who have refused to submit to the emotional pull of the unhealthy triangle. Most do not make the headlines or get recorded in the annals of history. Those who can face the pain, without ranking it or distancing from it — and work through it to help shape a just solution in order to transcend the horrors and unhealthy triangle, and find a place and promise of authentic hope.
Those are the heroes we have. We need to join their ranks.