Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The capacity to witness suffering

I was struck over the weekend by our fascination with disaster, our ability to watch the same few seconds or minutes of video footage of horror and trauma again and again. I'm not sure what fuels that fascination, whether it's relief that it isn't us, the vicarious thrill of experiencing from the safety of a warm living room, or just the innate human curiosity to see what happens to others.

I stopped attending to the news in any systematic way in 1986 when the Challenger exploded and we became riveted onto the fiery deaths of those individuals. I had already become disenchanted with the focus on violence and negativity that fueled both newspapers and TV news programs as if no one ever did anything nice for anybody anywhere. But that replay and replay and replay of those seconds of immolation unnerved me in a way I hadn't expected, and I stopped paying attention to what was wrong and began to focus on what was right in the world.

Although my opinion is in no way scientific, I don't think we are programmed/wired/geared to handle the knowledge of mass suffering. In our early times, we would have known of only the suffering of our village or tribe and perhaps a neighboring village or tribe if the plague or famine or flood reached that far. On that scale, we could explain it, according to our beliefs, and what's more important we could cope and help out. We could integrate it into our worldview and into our beings.

But when disaster is so large, as with the Japanese earthquake/tsunami/nuclear reactors, and so pervasive (Katrina, Haiti, New Zealand, AIDS, genocide in Africa, child sex trafficking, drug wars, etc.), we cannot absorb this into our understandings and so we live in fear and anxiety and impotence and we run the risk of turning away in protective indifference from any suffering and turning a blind eye to where we can help.

I'm not sure how we best protect our psyches so that we can be of service. I just know that after an hour in front of the TV on Friday morning, I've stayed away from the news and tried to be as kind to the others I encounter as I can be.

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