When people experience mutual suffering, it is their need that unites them--the need to grieve, the need to find relief from the pain, the need for someone else to understand how they feel. We are social creatures by nature, and we band together in the face of catastrophe. Any situation or circumstance profound enough to produce suffering would be catastrophic in our lives; the natural response would be to reach out to others.
Does prosperity divide? I think that it can and does because it lessens our need for each other, in some ways at least. Because we are prosperous, we have our own economic resources and can act independently of others. The poem "Richard Cory" shows how Cory's wealth separated and isolated him from the lives of the other people in town. Prosperity also divides groups of people in society, cutting them off from each other, with little interaction between the wealthy and the poor. An elite suburb may exist fifteen or twenty miles from an impoverished inner city, but they are worlds apart, divided by the prosperity enjoyed by some, but not by others.
It can do both. Take, for instance, the famous John Walsh whose son, Adam, was kidnapped and murdered. He and his wife ultimately divorced over the tragedy since they tended to blame one another for the events and how they unfolded. This is one incident where suffering did not unite two people. However, whenever a young child goes missing, the entire community comes together to try to find the child. This is an example of how suffering and tragedy does unite people. War is the same way...usually when a country or community comes together to face a common enemy, the suffering unites that group until the danger has passed. Think 9-1-1.
What a stimulating question! Indeed, is one that has been addressed by numerous authors in literature. For instance, John Steinbeck, a socialist, addresses the question of the need for Depression-era people having others with whom they could share a brotherhood. His novel, "Grapes of Wrath" and his novella "Of Mice and Men" certainly illustrate this theme.
Another author, Taylor Caldwell, wrote of men who were once poor and then became rich. Her novel, "The Strong City" recounts this man's moving to a mansion on a hill away from the town. Eventually, he becomes alienated from those he has known in his impoverished past: "Yet, he was filled with the black coldness of an infinite despair."
Caldwell also worried how the wealthy elite would affect America. One character reflects,
I see a few mighty monopolies headed by gentlmen of intelligence and craft and statemanship, ....I see those gentlemen in close touch with great bankers, great railroad builder, great politicians, great statesmen. The future of America is in the hands of a few sho know how to manipulate, nor merely build.
Sometimes suffering separates people. When there is a divorce, children often tend to distance themselves from either parent.
When there is a tragic death in the family, it takes lots of cooperation on each member to come together for counseling. Otherwise, the anger and frustration might also distance them.
Suffering may at times unite people, but I think one person has to be very strong to carry the majority of the load. If a group of people are grieving equally, it is hard to fathom there would be any anchoring. For example, right now a close friend of mine is dying slowly- well, his family has completely disbanded from the wife, and everyone is accusing each other of not spending "enough time" with this person. I can see, however, it is the lack of anchoring I was just talking about.
Prosperity might divide people because not everyone is happy to see other people succeeding. Envy, jealousy, greed, and anger might get in the way of feeling close to someone who has clearly better luck. Hence, both suffering AND prosperity can be double edge swords.
To properly answer this question, one only needs to think back as far as 9/11/01. On that day, in that time, the country underwent a huge swell of patriotism, marked by t-shirts, bumper stickers, and other public displays of united effort on behalf of the United States.
As the war dragged on, however, and people returned to their everyday lives of paying bills and raising families, the splendor of that emotional time was soon forgotten, and Americans divided themselves into two fronts: pro-military and anti-war. Prosperity had little to do with this, since our economy was essentially the same if not worse than it was when the terrorist strikes first took place. People did not divide because they somehow became more prosperous, although such a thing is not unheard of.
When a large group of people suddenly become very prosperous, everyone seems to have a different idea about what should be done with that prospertiy. This is how conflict arises and societies crumble. The love of money is indeed the root of all evil, and greed has ruined many a great nation.
Yes, I think both of those can be true.
When the whole community suffers, as in World War II, people were very much united by the experience. Not only did most families have someone fighting in the war, but they were sharing the experience of rationing, newsreels, war production, etc.
Similarly, when a person is very ill, it tends to bring families and friends together much more closely.
Prosperity or good times can definitely make people more independent and isolated. We get involved in our own lives, we live more separately (houses instead of more crowded places), and we devote energy toward materialistic pursuits. Although people maintain some close relationships in times of prosperity, they are less interdependent.
Suffering does unite people but I think only temporarily. When the memories start to fade or the people involved in the ordeals start to pass away, there becomes less and less sympathy for the victims, and soon society is back to perpetrating the same horrible circumstances on the next "customers" of the day. Just witness any persecution and as you read the details, "Never Again" has become "well, Maybe Just One More Time," from the Holocaust to the Killing Fields, to Bosnia to Palestine, it unites but it also divided between pros and cons.
There is a clear evidence in sociological studies the common suffering unites people. But this may not be so when suffering people see others as competitors for limited resources. Thus a group of people marooned on a island may be united and help each other, even if they did not know each other earlier. But a group of people on a sinking ship may start fighting with each other to be to get on to lifeboats before others.
Competition for limited resources or opportunities tend to divide people in prosperity also. However there ins no clear evidence to show that prosperity itself divides or unites people. Though, people in a group tend to become closer and more united with success of the group as a whole.
When already some bond of friendship or other relationship exists between people, then there is a tendency to help each other in times of difficulty or need. But I will call this a case of "friend in need is friend indeed". The bond of friendship uniting the people is already there. The difficult situation provides an opportunity for this bond to take an active form.