Apathy in a World Full of Pain
What is your response when someone or something interrupts your world and reminds you there are people suffering?
“Ah, that’s too bad…”
“Poor soul, glad it’s not me…”
“Wow, that really sucks…”
Anything like that sound familiar? Ever roll the windows up while waiting for a stoplight so that the person standing at the intersection won’t walk up to your car? Maybe you’ve j-walked to avoid walking near a homeless person crouched on the sidewalk? Seen a family standing outside of a grocery store asking for something to eat? Perhaps you’re religious, and a family that doesn’t dress as well or appear as well-off comes in and tries to hide in the back row? The examples could be endlessly listed – because poverty is diverse and impossible to briefly characterize.
In contrast, maybe you are someone who does the opposite: gives spare cash to people in need; picks up the veteran and takes them to the closest shelter; dedicates time and energy to the Red Cross for tornado recovery teams; etc. Even if that’s you, keep reading – this blog is for all of us, even the people who find themselves somewhere in-between our two examples.
Before we continue, let’s say this: this is not meant to make you feel guilty. It is not meant to be some conviction-creating call-to-action that anchors a new-found good will in self-shaming. Similarly, the purpose is not to give some people a reason to gloat or feel self-righteous. The goal, in fact, is two-fold: to talk about how easy it is to not care, and to present ideas worth discussing and let you work it out on your own. Thoughts mean little if we don’t reach conclusions without manipulation.
Why is it so easy to ignore suffering?
- We all have the tendency to surround ourselves in what makes us comfortable. It’s almost reflexive! We live in a place where options are practically limitless if we are willing to pay for them. Don’t like where you buy groceries? Switch. Don’t like going to that Italian restaurant? Switch. Don’t like driving through a certain neighborhood? Take a different route. Don’t like what’s on tv tonight? Get a streaming service. And so on and so on. Unfortunately, suffering doesn’t radiate comfort – and thus we tend to avoid it when we can so we remain comfortable. Heard of confirmation bias? This is similar: comfort bias.
- We have been conditioned to expect a certain level of privacy. In our homes and personal lives we have developed an expectation that no one can enter our “bubble” without permission. This directly translates to when we are in public. Paul Boden, a well-known advocate for the homeless, says this, “I think the poorer and darker-skinned and dirtier a person is, the bigger that private space bubble that Americans love to walk around with gets.”
- We don’t have the capacity to commit. Choosing to stand up with or for people who are suffering in some way is never a five-second task. We live in a culture steeped in immediate gratification. As a result, when we realize the heaviness of the task of helping someone get back on their feet, we get overwhelmed and duck out. Every heard the phrase: “I’m at the end of my rope!”? Today’s rope is often more like a string – a very short string.
- We sometimes reason that people who are suffering have done something to deserve it, or that it could never happen to us. Folks from strict religious backgrounds might head down this road quickly – “That’s happening to them? Well they must have done something wrong.” In the case of the homeless, “We have demonized [them] so much over the last 30 years that passerby don’t think they can ever end up on the streets because they’re not crazy, they’re not drug addicted, they’re not alcoholics, and they’re not stupid,” says Paul Boden. It’s far easier to walk away from helping someone if we can make ourselves believe they are getting what they’re owed. “They made their bed, now they can sleep in it.”
- It’s not simple or easy. Right? When we see a sticky, messy, this-will-take-alot-of-work kinda situation, most of us take a hard pass because we don’t think we have the time, energy, desire, money, or capacity to help. Most people put off doing the dishes and let them pile up into a mess that eventually demands intervention. People are SO much more important and yet we tend to treat them the same way. And guess what, if it was easy to get out of a situation of suffering, more people would do it more quickly.
A Few Ideas
- Live Together, Die Alone. Okay, so it’s from a tv show, does it make it less true? Humanity loves to come up with new and better ways of making sure there are things that divide us – citizenship, religion, education, sports teams, politics, and on. But let’s be 100% honest here, when it comes right down to being a human – it doesn’t matter if you follow the Pope or the Spaghetti Monster, it doesn’t matter if you root for the Yankees or Red Sox, and it doesn’t matter if you voted for Hillary or Trump. As JFK said, “What is unites us is far greater than what divides us.” We have a responsibility to be on this planet with billions of other people, it’s high time we all started acting like we’re in it together.
- Don’t be afraid to say yes every once in a while. We get that there are sometimes reasons to not get involved. But the flip-side of that would mean that there are also sometimes reasons to GET involved. Don’t be afraid to roll up your sleeves and try to help somebody. Few people have the capacity and ability to be saints – and that’s the point. The world would be a far better place if every person tried to be saint-like 10% of the time, instead of 1 in a million being saint-like 100% of the time.
- Learn to thrive in discomfort. You will be better for it in the long run. If we can all shrink our bubbles and learn to brush shoulders with the world, the world can gradually become a better place. Learning to thrive in our discomfort can make us better workers, can make us g0-getters, can help us conquer our own demons so that we can help the world face the larger enemy – apathy. After all, our biggest enemy is ourselves. Because if we don’t learn to care, who will?
http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=8136 http://www.alternet.org/poverty/psychology-behind-why-people-react-way-they-do-homeless-person-asking-help http://www.huffingtonpost.com/paul-boden/i-aint-no-broken-window_b_1404498.html