On suffering – there is such thing as too close

Screenshot 2020-03-19 at 11.11.37 PM

This is Kelly. She is a babe.

 “Check in on your control freak friends. We are not ok.”
– Kelly Donaldson (my BFF since ’92), March 18, 2020

I am a leader among those of us who have been down far, far too many internet rabbit holes in recent days. The space between knowing some but not enough is a dark one. The last thing we need is another entry. Here I am anyways.

I have the same stake in this game as the rest of you humans. I have three kids, two ageing parents, family in vulnerable parts of Africa and a 36-week pregnant sister in a city that has been declared a state of emergency.  We are in Christchurch, which has one known case of COVID-19 to date, a good government that takes it seriously and a great public healthcare system. A large, thinly-populated, middle-class, remote island feels like a pretty good place to be in a pandemic.

I am, however, a social scientist. The past two decades of studying and working international affairs has culminated in…. an understanding that humans are trash (see letter to myself on my 40th birthday). In fact, I predicted this. Not necessarily right now and via a Pangolin in Wuhan,  but one of my guiding principles for parenting is: is it better to be a genocidee or a genocider?  I am in a much better place physically than most people right now, but I would bet five good dollars that my ‘what ifs’ are as deep and dark as anybody out there.

My most interesting (I’m kidding, it’s my only interesting) project in my Master’s degree was in a Media and Society class. We had to submit a paper on how media affects society.  The Professor was to select the best paper for journal publication. Mine was on media portrayals of suffering and the subsequent impacts. I compared media coverage of the 2004 Asian tsunami with African humanitarian disasters and how that impacted fundraising. You guys, I nailed that shit. It got a First Class distinction but lost out to ‘The Britney and Madonna Kiss* and how that impacted girl on girl action in subsequent media’ for publication.  The Professor had a clause in his contract forbidding him to have close-door meetings with girl students (seriously).

My research included analysing Susan Sontag’s book Regarding the Pain of Others.  I am paraphrasing a lot here, but one of her key points was that we need to be a very specific distance from suffering to feel true empathy – close enough that we can imagine it is us and far enough that we are safe from it.  Too far or too close don’t do it for us.

The tsunami was the perfect storm (pun intended). We could all picture being on holiday in Thailand…. from the safety of our homes. It helped that the media told us the stories and showed us the faces of all the foreigners missing or dead. That tsunami broke fundraising records.

Meanwhile, the media kept African humanitarian crises at arms length (still does). Black and white photos. No names. Lots of statistics. Often, the caption for an image of a person – in a hospital bed, staring off in the distance, walking long journeys by foot, carrying a rifle in military fatigues – ignores the person altogether and speaks only to the conditions around them. The person is obtuse, dehumanised. An object instead of the subject. Fundraising appeals for African humanitarian crises fall short all.the.time.

This is my first experience in a crisis that is too close for empathy. Most of the people reading this have lived in an era without war or extreme poverty.  All the while seeing regular images and stories of it elsewhere. Their suffering feels inevitable. We became desensitised. We started to believe in our exceptionalism, our right to avoid it.

All of the sudden we are facing the unknown impacts of a global health crisis and – even scarier – the social costs in its wake.  Enter our most primal Darwinian animal instincts to protect ourselves and our loved ones. Parents are supposedly able to lift cars off their children when necessary, yet here we are powerless against an unknown. We are too consumed with fear to feel empathy.

Almost 9,000 people have died to date from this thing. I have heard their ages and locations but none of their names.  I have not seen images of families in mourning or faces of lost ones.

Joseph Stalin said a single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.

I recently went to see Margaret Atwood live (the Handmaids Tale + 41 other books, a genius mind and student of history). According to her, most of us like to believe that we would fight for what is right in the face of personal risk or loss. Yet history shows that only some of us will. Most of us will just put our heads down in self-preservation.

I love all the inspirational sayings floating around about how we are giving the Earth a break, reseting, unplugging, remembering what is important. It is adorable. And utterly ahistorical. They are obviously not social scientists.

If you have made it this far and take one thing from me make it this – if you are looking for signs that humanity is good – don’t look up, look in.  We do not know what is coming, but we get to choose how we handle ourselves (in between panic, because we are multitaskers and I’m not here to shame anxiety). It is, in the end, all we have.

In case I sound like I am on a high horse, I spent $800 at the grocery store in the last 48 hours. My freezer is full for the first time ever and I am deep, deep in worry about how my family will be impacted. Our health. Our finances. Our visas. Our futures. The world our kids are growing up in. New normals. Herd immunity. Climate change. Recession. Depression. Greed. Corruption. Nationalism. New kinds of War.

And I was prepared for this, in principle. The struggle is real.

With that, I am going to sign out and do something hard. I am going to remind myself – forcefully – that I am far better equipped than most people to deal with all of this. If I can spend $800 on freezer food for my well-fed family, then I can pry my wallet from my clenched fists and give to people and organisations with real and true immediate needs who are at least as deserving as I am.

Spending $800 on groceries is ultimately an attempt to feel in control. Because man, I miss my old friend. Even if she was imaginary, she gave me comfort. I have to believe that even more peace and purpose will come through serving others and make this the order of my days during these crazy times.

*Capitalised on purpose and with an eye roll as if the gay rights movement hadn’t been fighting for decades for more representation.