Desensitized to a Messy World
Acknowledging and responding to the violence and suffering in today's world
Last week, an interview on “The Daily Show with John Stewart” with former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, began with this exchange:
Jon Stewart: “How’s the world.”
Kofi Annan: “Messy.”
Indeed, the world is in a chaotic and cruel place. In the Syrian civil war alone up to 11,000 people have been killed. Yet the day-to-day events of the conflict seem to be just a blip in the news. Recent developments say that the government has threatened chemical weapons against Syrian rebels who seized a border crossing at Turkey. Innocents are daily wounded and killed with stray bullets. Last month more than 200 Syrians were massacred. What drives a government to such mercilessness?
In just one 24-hour news cycle we learn about some kind of violence around the world. And not just that. Every day nearly 16,000 children die from hunger. Suffering seems to abound and we see it so often on the news or in movies that we’ve become desensitized. It takes something like 9/11, a large-scale violent event on our own soil, for us to be jarred enough to look up and see that terrible violence and suffering exists.
Yet such horror happens on different scales every day around the world.
It’s important to recognize that human beings are the cause of this kind of suffering, not God. Violence against fellow human beings may be one of the biggest mysteries, but it leaves us with many questions. For starters: Why is peace so difficult for humankind?
The “easy” religious answer would be to say that it’s because we’re fallen. We have a broken and sinful nature. Unfortunately, that answer doesn’t satisfy. Not with events like 9/11 or the Holocaust. It’s not an acceptable answer for someone who’s starving because their government withholds food distribution from them. There are no easy answers, just more questions.
For those removed from major daily civil violence the questions that arise are: Where is God in all this? and How do we respond?
Since we can be so desensitized to violence it’s first important to acknowledge the existence of it. The Spiritual Exercises, prayers and practices developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola, has a meditation where you look down at the world through God’s eyes and see all that is going on, the people laughing and crying, the joy and sorrow, the loving and the hating, people being born, people dying, the peacemaking and the violence. Without judgment, you simply see. You acknowledge that these things are going on simultaneously all around the world. You also notice how watching all this makes you feel. Disappointment? Mixed emotions? You come to see that God continues to love despite the violence and hatred. A priest once told me that, “love is having an awareness of the other.” Simply acknowledging (and not ignoring) the truths in another’s life is the first step in loving.
We also have to acknowledge that what we see reported on the news is a tiny sliver of the reality. The story of suffering and violence is often a lot more complex than what we read in the news. God knows this complexity, but we don’t. On one hand, what we hear in the news could be worse than we think. On the other, it may be hyped up. In 2010 I spent several weeks working in a very poor area of Kingston, Jamaica. It’s been known for gunfights and violence and drug lords. Even locals wouldn’t set foot into the area. Later that year Kingston made international news when the Jamaican government finally gave into the United States’ request to extradite Christopher “Dudus” Coke, a major drug lord in a part of downtown Kingston, on drug trafficking charges. For days the community endured violent firefights between police and Coke’s henchmen. Yet aside from these very rare incidents, that area of Kingston was generally peaceful. But few knew that because all they knew was what the news told them.
This is not to say that one shouldn’t assume caution, but my point is that as outsiders we never have the full story. We may think we have a solution to the violence or poverty in some place or other, but until we fully know and understand its complexities, we can’t always fix it. Whether it’s a shooting in a movie theater in our own country or a mass execution in Syria, sometimes we have to accept that we can’t fully understand.
So how do we respond? Seeing this kind of violence and suffering ought to make us feel guilt. It’s the kind of guilt that moves us to action. It says that something’s not right. All around the world other human beings who breathe and love like us are innocently being murdered or tortured while we sit privileged with Wi-Fi and air conditioning. Knowing this ought to make us restless and uneasy. And we become sinners even in our inaction and stagnancy. It’s easy to “cover up” the uncomfortable feeling of guilt by writing out a check to a charity just to cross it off your good deed to-do list. While you or I may not be able to individually stop the systemic causes of violence, our guilt can influence how we pray, how we vote, what we speak out on, or what causes we become involved in. True compassion comes in the deep desire to acknowledge, understand, and act powerfully.
There’s a scene in the movie “Hotel Rwanda” where humanitarian Paul Rusesabagina is speaking to Jack Daglish who shot footage of a massacre in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Paul is upset when Jack suggests that after people see the footage they may not intervene. “Don’t they care?” Paul asks. Jack responds, “I think if people see this footage they’ll say, ‘Oh my God that’s horrible,’ and then go on eating their dinners.”
We do that. We do that because we’re desensitized. I am bothered that news reports of the violence around the world don’t bother me more, but perhaps it’s because I hear about it too much. Perhaps it’s because I don’t think I can do much about it. Perhaps it’s because I can’t relate.
Maybe an effort to sensitize ourselves more to the reality of these stories requires prayer. If we can imaginatively enter a gospel scene in the Ignatian tradition of prayer where we interact with Jesus and all the characters, can’t we do the same with news stories? This not only lets us acknowledge our current-day suffering but it makes it personal. If you can imagine your own family as victims in terror and violence perhaps compassion and action more powerfully rises within you, leading you to speak out, to pray more intentionally, and to get up from your dinner outraged, sorrowful, and driven to do whatever it takes to help Christ in his mission of setting the world’s captives free. I want to be able to say, “I may not understand, but I must do something.”