Friday, January 15, 2010

Compassion is Complicated

If you haven't already noticed, I'm a sensitive, reflective person. I think deeply; I feel deeply. I consider the daily events of life to be on par with lyric poetry, so you can imagine how significant I take tragedies like the earthquake in Haiti. As with everything else in life I react by reflecting, by thinking deeply and feeling deeply.

Compassion is complicated. As a global community we are hearing the reports, seeing the images, feeling an echo of the needs. But how can we respond?

If this tragedy had happened in my neighborhood, I would not hesitate. If I had clean water, I would bring it to those who had none. If I had food, I would share it with those who were hungry. If I had a blanket I would share it with someone who had lost hers. If I had a house that was standing I would fill it with those who's houses had fallen.

And there are people without water, food, warmth, and shelter today. I can see them, I can even hear their voices. But I cannot touch them. I cannot share with them. I cannot help them.

I could give money to a relief effort - but any amount short of "everything I have" seems so insufficient. What price is right? $10? $100? $1000?

And here I come to the real complication of global compassion - the tragedies are endless. If I give what any one tragedy deserves - all that I have - what will I do tomorrow when the next crisis hits? Before our communities were global, they were local. Before media and technology the entire world was within walking distance. Tragedy was still endless, but it was accessible. If someone lost a loved one I could go and sit with them, I could bring a meal, I could provide a blanket. And a real disaster that could level the whole community would come only one or twice in a lifetime.

Now that our community is global, these once-in-a-lifetime events happen weekly, if not daily. Earthquakes, hurricanes, famines, war, refugees - we know not just of the rare instances these things touch the lives of our own town, we have the opportunity to know when one of these touches any town. And yet, and because, we are armed with this unceasing knowledge of need and pain, our arms are too short to act.

I wonder if we were more compassionate people, before. When we knew the intimate lives of our neighbors and could meet small needs on a daily basis, facing together wide-sweeping disasters once or twice in a lifetime. We would have known that in other parts of the world there was similar trouble, but there would have been no way to access the details. We could give all of ourselves to the needs around us.

Or maybe we are more compassionate now, with a vivid awareness of just how many millions of people lie down with grief each day, how easily the unexpected could overtake any of us at any time. Or maybe we are just more numb, unable to take daily what we are made to take only a few times in a lifetime. Or maybe we are just more confused. Or maybe that's just me.

Compassion is Complicated.


Bea said...

I remember years ago hearing a story - probably apocryphal - about a native tribe in Tanzania or somewhere who were introduced to radio technology and heard a news report of a fire. The tribe immediately began packing up their things and when the Western person who had shown them the radio asked what they were doing they replied that they were going to help (duh). I doubt it really happened but I've always remembered that story as a demonstration of the numbing, dehumanizing effects of the information we are inundated with today.

Eowyn said...

This one is going to take some thought to respond to. And probably not this morning--too little sleep.