Will American Tragedies Grow its Empathy for Worldwide Atrocities?

I lulled myself to sleep last night with the fragrant words from Time Magazine’s The Pursuit of Happy-ish article. Words like “unfathomable magnitude of suffering” sunk in alongside external ponderings of whether or not our society has the empathy, not to mention the attention-span, to provide long-term help for these recent tragedies. Of course, the journalist is discussing solely American events.

Morning dawns, and I find myself soaking up an article I’ve put off long enough. One of my favorite authors, D.L. Mayfield, writes about Angelina Jolie’s recent film, First They Killed my Father. Her article not only highlights the anguish of watching the Cambodian genocide unfold through the eyes of a five year old in this netflix movie, but also exposes genocides of our generation and the one going on right now in Myanmar.

BBC New’s photo caption: “Rasida, who is nine months pregnant, is one of thousands of mothers-to-be who have fled – knowing they could give birth any day.”

I am taken back to five years ago when I and my study abroad cohort made a 10 day excursion through Rwanda and was educated through film, memorials and personal testimonies about the 1994 Rwanda genocide. I remember being shocked that this abhorrent crime against humanity happened within my short lifetime. I felt disdain and surprise toward Western governments that sat back and watched—but the reality was then and still is now: People had no clue.

I begin to read story after story on Myanmar. This genocidal state of “ethnic cleansing”, eliminating the Muslim Rohingya people group, has been happening for a couple years now. Myanmar’s main political leader is, ironically, a Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Billy Graham E.A.’s photo: Displaced Fire Victims from California Wildfires

The fires, shootings and hurricanes that have just struck America receive far more attention. Businesses and individuals have been moved to make a difference– contributing with awareness through media and money alike. BBC, CNN, Fox News, New York Times and countless other reporting platforms have written stories before and stories just last week about the Rohingya genocide. It’s old news; it’s public news…yet it’s not.

The photos say it all and will make your skin crawl and stomach churn. How can I possibly be living this life I have while, on the same earth, these horrific circumstances are the reality for others? Overwhelmed with anger, empathy, and helplessness, I walk away from my computer and take my morning shower. Clean, warm water freely showers down from my head to my toes- with no limit and at no particular cost to me.
What is this privileged, safe life I’ve been granted?

Mayfield says:  “…as I read the news and try to pay attention to current events, suddenly I start to find that my safe and secure existence is the anomaly. My lack of proximity to suffering is what marks me as different—the outlier in a world full of horror.”

I wonder if the tragedies here in America– the seemingly endless, merciless line of pain that kept adding on to itself one disaster at a time– will prompt anyone to turn their eyes to other corners of the world and see how normal disaster is and has been to many countries for decades. I wonder if those displaced by the wildfires and hurricanes will begin to fathom the experience of a refugee through their loss of everything and rocky endeavor to rebuild their lives. I wonder if those whose loved ones were caught in the shooting will ponder what it means to be in a country where life itself is a day-by-day gift and one is never fully safe.

“One wonders if it’s possible..”, “And where do we start?” , are those hearty questions asked by Time‘s journalist in regards to responding and rebuilding.

I cannot abandon the life I’ve been granted and despising my privileges will help no one. But truly, that lack of proximity to suffering keeps us jaded. We ought to be purposefully exposing ourselves to it more often. Nearly nothing is possible and there will be no good place to start without empathy.

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