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
critic Lewis Mumford observed that since 1954, “in thirty brief years, violence and slaughter had increased at geometric ratio, while the human reaction to it had altered inversely.” Novelist Milan Kundera made the following observation about our “new” relationship with violence: “The bloody massacre in Bangladesh quickly covered the memory of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, the assassination of Allende drowned out the groans of Bangladesh, the war in the Sinai desert made people forget Allende, the Cambodian massacre made people forget Sinai, and so on and so forth until ultimately everyone lets everything be forgotten.”
Many of the conditions of our late modern world are harrowing and deeply unsettling, although only if we allow ourselves to sit long enough with the emotional overwhelm and sense of helplessness that passively viewing violence can cause. But often we don’t. Or won’t. Or can’t. We move on. We keep busy, sometimes out of the necessity of survival, although often because staying active confines awareness to the events at hand. It’s not that we are apathetic. Nor is it the case that we resist helping find solutions. Rather, increasingly we cannot tolerate witnessing the suffering of others or our own fragile existences. How did we get here? Are we really that different from past eras, or is there something unique about our times, about our country—about us—that makes emotional withdrawal a necessary survival skill in twenty-first century America and throughout much of the world?
Even though violence is a pervasive problem, our understanding of the impact of violence is often quite circumscribed. Images of violence rarely extend beyond the act. They do not include the victim’s life in the aftermath, what it takes to regain a sense of normalcy. As a society, we are well-schooled in witnessing violent acts—we shell out money for the latest Bond picture or Bourne Identity sequel that gets the adrenaline flowing and mirrors our collective habit (need?) of forgetting the effects of violence. But we are not so good at taking care of victims of violence, let alone witnessing the long shadow of suffering that violence can cause.
Our attitudes towards being a victim may aggravate our responses to the consequences of violence. America has fashioned itself as a nation of heroes. We readily acknowledge violence in foreign countries, where we sometimes attempt to save others from a fate we don’t easily witness on our home soil: victimhood. We export notions of oppression—protecting Koreans and Vietnamese from communism, and most recently, Middle Easterners from rogue dictators (or so the official reasoning goes)—while ignoring the oppressiveness of being a nation almost continually at war, as well as the high levels of family and intimate partner violence that brings victimhood into our personal lives. Projecting victimhood perpetuates our denial of the consequences of violence: the broken bodies, broken souls, and broken families that are inevitable when people hurt people.
We don’t need more images of violence to jar us into awareness. Rather, I believe we need more stories about how violence alters the arc of a life, and the efforts of regaining a sense of safety, if not self, after violence. There is heroism here too, if only we take the time to listen. Indeed, it may matter more to a victim of violence to be heard than seen. Victimhood is a shaming experience as well as a frightening one, and there might be something natural about not wanting to be seen as a victim.
And so to heal the impact of violence, perhaps even to deter it, we must make opportunities for listening to the voices of victims in equal measure to the time we spend witnessing their tragedies. In doing so, we might help them overcome while also invigorating the human need to express empathy.
Laura K. Kerr, PhD, IMFT is a Mental Health Scholar and Registered Marriage & Family Therapist Intern in the San Francisco Bay Area. For more information, visit her website.