Human beings have always had a soft spot for distant, unexpected disasters. There is evidently something piquant in the thought of death or misfortune befalling unknown persons. It is food to our curiosity, sustainance to our complacency, and satisfaction to a purely hypothetical compassion. In contemplating the miseries of faraway individuals, we feel ourselves simultaneously entertained, virtuous, and safe from similar harm. That is a heady combination.
This has, I say, always been the case. But in recent years, with the “speed of information” and the questionable advancements of our social media, it has become possible to enjoy a steady, even overflooding stream of such juicy tidbits. What’s more, each one of them now comes conveniently attached to some urgent “debate”; the man who is eaten by a bear in the mountains opens fiery discussion on the status of wildlife as such; the unfortunates who are crushed in the deeps of the ocean lead to hot arguments about the wisdom of sending private individuals into such inhospitable realms. There is always something new to talk about with our “internet communities,” something new to dispute. There is a continual stream of new opportunities for each one of us to emerge as the “hero of the moment,” the protagonists of the daily dialogue.
This has led to the bizarre state of affairs that the “news media,” which is supposed generally to grant edifying insight into the major events of our day, now often enough focuses on totally peripheral, and historically ephemeral, episodes. These form a perfect distraction for a populace which craves distraction. It turns our attention from the much greater events of our time — events which actually have direct and immediate bearing on our lives — and obsesses us with transience and triviality. More importantly still, it distracts us from what stands most immediately around us, what is happening day by day within us. It is incredible that a man can concern himself with broken households in Uganda when his own marriage is falling apart before his eyes; it is absurd that he can delight over a video of a poor child receiving a gift from a stranger, when the homeless squat on every corner of his city. Look around yourself! Look within yourself! What does it matter to me that a bear has mauled a man in the woods, when the raging beasts of my own soul are still at large? Why should I care about the wreck of some submarine, when my own abysses have yet to be plumbed?
It should go without saying, there is nothing whatsoever objectionable in feeling true empathy for the travails of our fellow human beings, wherever or whenever they happen to live. But we should beware the many pettier emotions which like to sneak into us in the guise of true empathy. Let us guard ourselves against “current events”! When “current events” come before us, there is really only a single sensible thing we can rightly do: pray silently for the suffering and hold our tongues on the rest.