First of all, don’t take this the wrong way. I don’t for a minute doubt the purity and sincerity of the feelings you have for the victims of the Haiti quake. A lot of people got a seriously messed up deal that day. It sucks.
Now, outside my office building, sits a man. He has been there for years. He’s not well. Something is wrong with his head and he just gravitates to this office—or to the spot on which this office was built—no matter how many times he is sent away. A few years ago some reporters found out that he was from Gulu and got the money together to send him back. In a couple of months he had returned, to just sit outside the offices, just sitting, silently. He doesn’t talk. Doesn’t even beg. He just sits there. I called him No Guarantees. He now has elephantiasis. His legs are swollen and disfigured and I think they may be rotting because they smell. On our way to lunch we don’t use the side of the pavement he is on.
Of course we think it’s a shame and a pity that this had to happen to a human being and, honestly, if I could donate 10k off my phone bill to cure him of elephantiasis and poverty and whatever else ails him, I would. But there is nothing so simple that I can do. To save him I would have to make some very large sacrifices of my own. We all would. And that is why it is just easier to block him out.
It a strange thing that it is a possible thing. We have the capacity as human beings to do this—to walk right past him every single day without being overcome by feelings of guilt or pity or sadness. We do it every day. And it’s not just No Guarantees. The world is teeming with dire straits that we disregard.
If unearned suffering is deserving of sympathy, then Haiti has been owed a telethon for years before the quake hit. But for all those years, Haiti was in the blind zone – the suffering we don’t see Or don’t look at. Because I think you have to make an at least demi-concious effort to not care. You have to pick and chose what you are going to spend your limited amount of sympathy on.
Perhaps we are more inclined to care about circumstances we believe we have a hope of changing. We, as the non-earthquake shaken world, see the problem as children trapped under rubble. We can get behind the cause of lifting the rubble and freeing the children.
We don’t see it as a problem of children trapped in a cycle of dehumanising deprivation that feeds on itself and from which there is no escape.
Perhaps the size of the tragedy before us compels us to care more. An earthquake killed 150,000? That will get more status messages than the 178 or bodies that were dug out of a pits and wells in Jos, Nigeria, victims of religious murders.
Because I have learned to be such a cynic and believe that everything anyone does they do because they perceive it at some level to be in their best interest, I am going to consider that we chose to care about the things that cost us the least.
Auden, contemplating a painting by Brueghel the Elder one day observed how this, and many paintings of momentous occasions, both sad and glorious, always had some mundane detail of everyday life pursuits going on in the background, unconcerned with the dramatic events in the fore. “About suffering they were never wrong, The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along…” He observed how “everything turns quite leisurely away from the disaster.”