World news has, lately, been dominated by too many depressing events. The eruption of skirmishes, wars and conflicts, the violence, the beheadings and the number of natural and accidental deaths have been disturbing. At a time like this, we can be thrown off balance. Our lives are impacted in strange ways by the negative events of a globalized world.
As I pay close attention to the emotions invoked by these world events, I realize that the starting point of our emotional journey in these unfortunate circumstances is always empathy. Yes – empathy – a natural and automatic emotion in psychologically healthy humans. When we are first exposed to the negative news, most of us are touched by the suffering of the people in the midst of the misery, who so ever they might be. We are affected by the affected. Their fear and helplessness, their loss of loved ones and livelihoods, their frustrations and uncertainty travel to our cities, countries and continents. Our newspapers, TV and computer screens bring strangers’ anguish into our homes and, then into, our psyches. We, naturally, empathize.
But very quickly our empathy mutates into other emotions. We may feel restless and realize that no individual action on our part may be significant enough to alter these mega-situations. The situation might be Gaza-Israel conflict or riots in Ferguson, or the inhumane acts of fanatics killing journalists in the Middle East, or natural disasters like flooding in India and Pakistan. Whatever the situation, limitations of our individual capabilities can transform our empathy into frustration, especially in man-made fiascos.
So what do we do to cope with this frustration? At times, we run away from all of this by switching off our news sources. Often we choose to numb ourselves by immersing ourselves in what brings us short-term happiness. We cocoon ourselves in our day-to-day routines. And sometimes we, unwittingly, let our frustrations transform into destructive emotions of anger and blame. As we try to make sense out of the nonsensical events around us, we build our own narratives for who is to blame – a race, a country, a dictator, a government, a political party, a newspaper, a news channel, a professional group, a religion or a group of strangers with weird beliefs. As bystanders, these narratives let us vent our frustration, our anger and disappointment and move on. And move on, we must.
Yes, I know sometimes we do use empathy in positive tangible ways by donating money to a cause or an organization that is providing relief to the victims. Sometimes we channel our empathy in a letter to an editor or a government representative to influence a coordinated effort from peers and allies. A very few of us are brave enough and are able to find creative ways to influence the world events. But most of the times, as average global citizens, our empathy fades away into the recesses of our minds. Another news cycle brings another set of things to worry about and we get trapped in ‘empathy fatigue.’
The question that has been popping up in my head is: As human beings living in a global world, standing on the sidelines, how should we react to an overwhelming amount of fear, violence and cruelty in our environment? I am not sure I know the answer but I would like to share a few of my observations.
First of all, we cannot cocoon ourselves in today’s globalized world. All corners of the world are hyper-connected via social media, news media, business networks and family and friend connections. Huge waves of events in one part of the world modulate the events across oceans within minutes and hours. Even if I as an individual choose not to pay attention to the world, events in Ukraine are going to have an effect on my job security in France as my government decides how to react to the geo-politics of Eastern Europe. Events in West Africa can bring real fear into an American’s life as an American citizen infected by Ebola is transported back home for treatment.
So if we cannot protect ourselves by shutting the world out, what resources can we employ in our daily lives to lessen the impact of an excessive dose of cruelty? No, I am not proposing that for every dastardly act in the world, we stop living our lives or even put our lives on hold to do something about it. However, I do wonder if we can harness the empathy that we all feel when we are first exposed to the suffering? Before I let this precious emotion morph into blame or anger or indifference or fatigue, however reasonable and logical it might be, can I pause and hold on to my heart for just a little while? Without that pause, at best, I let that empathy fizzle out, and at worst, I might unwittingly translate it into a range of destructive emotions in my private life and not even know about it.
I want to become cognitively aware of my empathy and then redirect it to the people and environment right around me. As the carnage of ISIS is hovering on airport lounge TV screens over my head, instead of sending out an inflammatory email to a coworker on my device, can I tone down the negativity in my outbox? Or perhaps, as I hear the news of another mass shooting on my car radio, can I make a conscious effort to not show my rage at the driver who just cut across me? I know this is counterintuitive. I know that neurophysiologists might tell me that that is not how human brains are wired. But that is precisely the reason why I want to get out of the autopilot of my ‘monkey brain’ which gets into fight or flight mode at these triggers, close or far. I want to be able to make a cognitive effort to become aware of and hold on to the fleeting, but very real, emotion of empathy before I slip in to the dark side.
Let me share a personal experience. While discussing one of the recent world conflicts, I found myself taking a condescending attitude with a dear friend who happened to have an ‘opposing’ view on the situation. As I reflected on my behavior after the event, the swiftness, and the unconscious manner, with which I had crossed my own boundary took me by surprise. I know that this is neither the first time I have erred in this manner nor the last but this is the first time I became so aware of it. Interestingly, the starting point for this short emotional journey that ended in anger in my head for a friend’s opinion was strong empathy and compassion towards strangers. I share this anecdote because I know that I am not the only one who has gone through this journey from empathy to anger.
Our brains and psyches are affected negatively by the events of the world. And when that happens, I would wish for all of us to pause. I would wish for us to latch on strongly to our humanity and redirect our compassion to people in our own lives and communities in interactions small and big. It is just one of the ways we can create an antidote in our own daily lives to the negativity that can permeate our world.
At times like these, let’s play heed to this Cherokee story. An old man told his grandson. “A fight is going on inside both of us,” he said to the boy. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.” The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?” The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
Let’s feed the good wolf.