What if there is something fundamental about empathy such that when we cannot act on it, we lose part of ourselves, perhaps even our humanity? What if we have unwittingly created a world in which we chip away at our capacity for empathy, and with it, one of the unique traits of humankind: the ability to love beyond kinship and species boundaries? Can we continually be exposed to violence and degradation, particularly through the media, and maintain empathy towards the suffering of others, or must we begin to shut down, feeling a little less compassion in exchange for a sense of safety, if not hope?
Compassion fatigue ails many of us, and results from viewing too many harrowing images of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (famine, war, death, and pestilence). In our era of 24/7 news coverage, repeatedly viewing disasters such as the attack on the World Trade Center or the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, can leave us hypervigilant, or emotionally numb, paranoid we might be similarly victimized, or too overwhelmed to entertain the possibility of catastrophe in our own lives.
The time period beginning with World War II, and extending to the present, has been depicted as an era of violence. Initiated by events such as Auschwitz, Dresden, and Hiroshima, and the technologies that made such destruction possible, this period is also distinguished from past eras by our passive witnessing of others’ suffering.
The effect of being inundated by images of violence has led to changes in our relationship with it. These images can fail to jar us as they once might have, or how we expect they should. The historian and literary