When 86 people died in the terrorist attack in Nice, France, many people posted online: “We stand with France.” When eight people were killed in the London attack, people wrote “We stand with London.” When 16 people were killed in the Barcelona attack, people wrote, “We stand with Barcelona.” Two weekends ago 300 people were killed and at least another 200 were injured in a terrorist truck bomb attack in the capital city of Somalia. I didn’t see anyone post “We stand with Somalia.”
My heart went out to all the families destroyed in that attack in Mogadishu but the lack of news coverage and the lack of statements of solidarity have been nagging at me for the last week. Why not an outpouring of “thoughts and prayers” for the people of Somalia?
One contributing factor might be the timing. We recently went through the shooting of hundreds in Nevada, the many wildfires in California, the devastating hurricanes in Texas, Louisiana, and Puerto Rico, the earthquakes in Mexico, to name only a few of the devastating events that have affected so many. Perhaps we are collectively suffering from something called “compassion fatigue” — a gradual lessening of compassion after seeing one trauma after another. I know that I don’t want to hear another “bad news” story.
But there is also a phenomenon called “empathic distress” in which a person is unable to empathize with the suffering of another. Developmental psychologists recognize this condition in some people with autism who cannot understand the emotions of others. But it can also be recognized in our current world situation.
This could be rooted in what some consider racism or ethnic prejudice, while others suggest that our ability to empathize is facilitated when we see ourselves in the suffering person. When we perceive someone as different from us, it is more challenging to have empathy for them.
Here’s another example of a situation where people are not mobilizing to stand in solidarity with the oppressed: Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya men, women and children are fleeing Myanmar because of a campaign to persecute and kill them. To be honest, I had never heard of the Rohingya people and I only vaguely remember that Myanmar is the country we used to call Burma. This seems so far away and foreign for me to pay attention, much less say or do anything.
But Pope Francis is headed to Myanmar next month. So I’m paying attention. And so will more of the world.
I don’t have a clue as to how to solve the problems of Somalia or Myanmar — or London or Barcelona either — but I am trying to open myself to being at least more empathetic for those who I see as different from me, and also people who have different opinions than me. That’s not easy in our current polarized culture. Just witness the lack of desire to understand one another when it comes to people’s posture during the national anthem! Political rhetoric demonizes the “other party” and we seem to be encouraging a kind of trench warfare where we decide that we’re right and the other person is eternally wrong. It’s hard to have empathy when we’re dug in this way.
Please pray for the people of Somalia this week. And the Rohingya. And others who we start to notice again for the first time in a new light of solidarity.
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