Family Separations are Background Noise


The world is big, with more happy and horrifying things happening every day than a person could ever keep track of. One thing I do to cope is tune out people’s suffering. I feel really bad for a moment when a desperate person is passed out and sunburned on an LA sidewalk. Then I tune it out. Because if I took time to stop and help every person in need, what would my life turn into? Interesting question…

President Trump ordered an end to new family separations at the border yesterday. Many people defended the separations and still feel a strong-handed approach is necessary. I don’t think anyone really believes taking children away from their parents is a nice thing to do. Rather we have different perceptions of illegal immigration, how much we feel it’s a problem, and the right way to address it.

For people who feel strongly that illegal crossings should be stopped, I assume they have to rely to some degree on the same coping mechanism that I do to tune out other people’s suffering. All of us, every day, ignore injustices so we can go to work, take care of our loved ones and pursue things we want. Sometimes we even get resentful of being asked to care. I don’t know a solution for this.

What concerns me is what happens when we get too accustomed to tuning out. For me, I see suffering in the world and then decide how much of my energy and resources I want to give to doing something about it. It’s pleasant for me to think of myself as giving a pretty good amount. I chose a career in peacebuilding, for example, and tell myself [make excuses] that it’s hard to make a lot of money in service professions. Aren’t I noble, everyone?

For others, I can only speculate. Maybe on some level defenders of traumatizing children on the border believe suffering in the world is inevitable, so why should this particular suffering prevent us from taking an important policy action?

This is a notion that worries me about humans: the semi-conscious assumption that the world is too big and suffering is too common for me to concern myself, so it becomes background noise I don’t even see. Or rather I see it, but I give it less attention than my waiter getting my order wrong. Sometimes it feels like things are getting even worse; I not only don’t feel your suffering, I blame you and wish more harm on you for making a fuss about it.

We should not berate ourselves for not being able to care about everything. But we should also keep an eye on our thoughts and feelings to double check that we really can’t help. Not being able to help is ok. But if we’re telling ourselves we’re busier than we are, or that our empathy tank is full when it isn’t, we should make the choice to do better.

The big secret is that giving compassion only looks hard before we do it. It actually gives us more energy. I hope someday when my children are in need and I’m not there, strangers won’t see them as background noise.


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