At a certain age (mine) you begin to read obituaries. And you develop a systematic separation procedure to put as much distance between you and the deceased. On a good day, everyone who has died is older than you, so that becomes a layer of insulation.
On a bad day, though, many of the deceased are your age or younger, so you have to work harder to separate yourself from their demise. A fatal car accident merely reminds you to buckle your seatbelt, as surely the victim did not. A deadly industrial accident makes you glad you work in an elementary school on sound ground.
You scan to the bottom of the obituary and try to surmise the cause of death based the charities designated for donations. American Cancer Society makes you ask yourself, Am I due for a mammogram, skin check, colonoscopy? and you pat yourself on the back because you quit smoking, as the deceased probably did not. Donations directed to the American Heart Association strengthen your resolve to hit the treadmill. You are surprised and suspicious if AIDS International is designated recipient for donations; certainly nobody you know would need the services of this organization. If the named charity is Hospice, you reassure yourself that the angel of death was welcome.
Human beings are gifted at separating themselves from tragedy. When we learn of some teen who has committed suicide or succumbed to drugs or has been arrested, we immediately try to think about all the ways their families are different from ours. Perhaps the parents had time-sucking jobs or that child had learning disabilities, unlike your children, or was spoiled and had a fast car and scads of cash to get into trouble. This makes us feel better about ourselves. It separates us from a tragedy we convince ourselves could never befall us. With each degree of separation and each layer of denial, empathy wanes.
Friday night I returned home from a fun day painting pottery and, as is my custom, immediately opened my laptop and checked FB. I was assaulted with images of the terrorist attacks in Paris.
Almost instantly, world maps from my 7th grade geography book surfaced in my brain, and I did a mental scan of where my family and friends were. Stacey and Nathan are currently stateside, but Allison and Henrik are in Oslo. I googled the distance between Paris and Oslo: 835 miles, about the distance from here to Tampa. That’s really far, right? My daughter’s friend Victoria was visiting Paris, but it wasn’t long before she reported, via FB, that she was safe inside her airbnb apartment. And I am not proud of this, but for just an instant I thought How will this affect my spring visit to Norway?
Saturday, I watched interviews with Parisians, and like the rest of Americans I grieve for their loss of 132 precious lives and what little innocence remains in this world. But, you see, I’ve already distanced myself from the tragedy. My wounds are scabbed over, healed by the reassurance that this horror was far away.
I am not alone in this self-centered, survival instinct to distance myself from tragedy. In a thinly veiled attempt to protect his travel business, Rick Steves posted an analysis of this terrorists attack on FB, comparing it to the 2004 Madrid and 2005 London bombings, and pleading with people: “Don’t be terrorized.” This does not have to affect your life, he seems to say. Everything will be right with the world tomorrow.
Even before all of my friends’ FB profile pics turned red, white, and blue, Ann Coulter, Newt Gingrich, and The Donald tweeted politically motivated statements that I will not quote, but their vile tweets contrasted our gun laws with France’s. See, they imply, we are nothing like them, thank goodness. This won’t happen to us.
A week rarely goes by that we don’t hear about one of America’s fallen heroes. There have been about 6,800 U.S. casualties in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and tens of thousands of their loved ones’ lives will be shattered.
We are all sincerely saddened by these casualties, but maybe we distance ourselves if we don’t currently know anyone fighting this war. And we’d never admit that somewhere in the deep recesses of our minds we might think, well, it’s a volunteer army; they knew the risks when they signed up. We will surely think about their families, but these families are something apart from us.
But how often have we thought about the slain Iraqis and Afghanis? Have you ever heard the media report on how many of their civilians—moms and dads and kids going about the business of living—have been killed? It’s as if these 210,000 Iraqi and Afghani civilians who died don’t count. We separate ourselves from these statistics. We don’t want to think about people pretty much just like us — just trying to put food on the table and making a better life for their kids–being casualties of a war they did not sign up for.
Mankind is so good at detaching from tragedy that some calamities instantly slip through their empathy sieves. Just one day before Paris was attacked, two suicide bombers killed 41 people in Beirut, Lebanon. Like Paris, the rampages were claimed by ISIS.
While the French tricolor was superimposed on nearly all my friends’ FB faces, where was the sympathy for Lebanon? This disaster barely registered with me, and I admit that I didn’t know what the Lebanese flag looked like until I just googled it.
There are so many degrees of separation between us and this Arab nation, a country so far away and with a Muslim majority. These degrees of separation are antidotes to empathy.
If you Francofied your FB profile picture, perhaps you saw that there was drop down menu where you could limit how long you wanted this red, white, and blue to appear. You could choose the number of days, up to a week. A week sounds about right for us to stop thinking about “those people’s” problems.
If there is any hope for peace in this world, it lies in the human capacity to walk in someone’s shoes, not for a moment, not for a week, but for our lifetimes, and not just for those close to us, but for those separated by many degrees.