It’s hard to be apathetic for things you don’t understand. When I heard about the Japanese Tsunami last week*, I shortly gasped and feigned shock. I rhetorically stated how awful it was. This was my reaction not out of organic concern but because I knew I had to get it up for the messenger delivering the news. I know when a reaction is expected and more often than not I give it. I didn’t understand what had occurred in this foreign land nor did I have the concern to really get into the details of it. I saw the media typhoon covering the international disaster and wondered why my internal reaction was so minimal.
Yet, I still remembered distinctly a scene from a fictional dramatic series leaving me literally walking around my apartment sobbing and babbling in a fit of hysteria. Even more recently, Maya Angelou on Oprah’s OWN network discussing her life, emotionally touched me in a way that left me in a complete state of stillness. The vast difference between the disaster in Asia and my reaction to scenes played out on my television screen is not of magnitude. Instead, the difference lives in my connectedness to the issues.
Generally, this is the difference that resides within all of us. The difference that makes us seem insensitive when someone else’s heartstrings are tied and pulled tightly around an issue. We all have led lives with varying degree of experiences, helping to facilitate how we view and react to the things put before us. I reacted weakly to news of the Tsunami because beside the images I viewed over at CNN I have no point of reference for it. Not only did Tsunami feel foreign to my tongue as I played with it in my mouth, the concept of a real life natural disaster was remote. Simply, Tsunamis are someone else’s devastation, not mine.
What’s disastrous to me are the saddening things that happen in my orbit of reality on a daily basis. If I want to see disaster, I don’t have to look across an ocean, disaster lives in my own backyard. When I heard about the eleven-year old girl in Texas getting rapped by close to two dozen men—that was disastrous to me. I could relate—not because I have ever been sexually violated but because as a woman, who was told at an early age to always let her parents know if anyone touched her, the possibility of sexual violation has always been in my orbit of reality.
Not to mention, that I think I have just become overtly desensitized to large scale disasters. Literally, a plane went through, at that time, the two largest buildings in New York. And I sat, at age fourteen, a few states away watching it on television. I watched people cry, bleed, and die in the street. But wait, two years prior to that, at age twelve, on every news station there was coverage of a boy walking into a high school and killing thirteen people. And then more recently we had black people, my people, floating in dirty water for weeks--the president, apathetically, in plane flying overhead. Approximately two thousand people died from that--and I watched it on my television screen. Then to round things off, in 2008 there was a lunatic running around the streets of D.C. playing a game of Russian roulette. Those disasters are in my backyard and the frequency of them numbs me for the next disaster. Thus, when I heard about Japan’s Tsunami—a natural disaster I couldn't understand it. I understand man-made disasters. I understand people hurting people. A tsunami--is just foreign.
And this awareness is what is starting to transform my own reaction to others who seem cold and indifferent to things that deeply affect me. I am becoming more apathetic to those whose icy dispositions I can’t understand. Prior to, it would anger me when people couldn’t understand how I felt, or seemed to meet my emotion with coldness. Within the last few years, as the result of personal experiences, I understand both sides of the coin on a few issues. Now, I understand both being apathetic about those issues and later being deeply invested in them. You can't fully empathize with something unless you have been through it. Now, I understand that the person that hurts me and doesn’t apologize isn't necessarily a jerk. The person just hasn't experienced that kind of hurt yet. That kind of pain is foreign to them.
Race relations, from a very broad lens is not about ones hatred for another’s race. Instead, it’s apathy for a group of people and the issues of those people we know only abstractly. I can’t understand the issues that specifically affect white people. I realized this was the case when I, during my time abroad, sat in a room of predominately white people and watched a movie about the Holocaust. They wept. My eyes were dry. Yet, I have not ever attempted to watch Roots and every time I try to watch The Color Purple I can’t deal with the emotions it elicits. Jewish suffering—I don’t relate to. Black suffering—I do.
As I watched a woman back in September (the same day that I had the “chance encounter” that I discussed here) become uncontrollably emotional, I realized the power of relevance. She was sitting outside of Pottery Barn with a woman that looked to be of relation to her, a flow of people passing by, a steady flow of tears freely and shamelessly drawing lines down her face. The way that she cried seemed so natural and effortless that I surmised she had been crying for days, at minimum the entire day. She seemed comfortable, so settled into her sadness that I couldn’t imagine her as anything but.
There would have been a time that I would have looked at this young woman and quickly and disgustedly labeled her weak. I would have figured that she was weeping over a man and that she should just wipe her tears, have some pride about herself, and pretend not to care. There was a time that I believed a nonchalant exterior created an indifferent interior. On that day, though, I understood that you cannot pretend away pain. There’s not enough pretending in this world for that to be a plausible remedy. At that point, I had comfortably sat with my own pain and therefore didn't look at her with pity—but instead with understanding.
And so, while I don’t understand what is going on in Japan—I will have empathy. Not because I can relate to the Tsunami, as I’ve said, the Tsunami, the natural disaster, the country, all of that is foreign to me. What isn’t foreign, though, is the suffering. I understand suffering. And for that, for that which I understand, my heart is genuinely heavy.
*I started writing this the week of the Tsunami. Out of respect for the people affected by the recent events, I halted writing and decided to postpone until now.
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