Thursday, October 25, 2007

How to Care About Darfur

Last month an article, "Why We Don't Care About Darfur," was published in the September issue of O Magazine. In it, the author cites scientific research that shows that humans have a much easier time being empathetic toward individuals than toward groups. Researchers note that as the number of affected persons increases in a tragedy, such as in genocide, the human brain's ability to process such heart-rending information becomes more difficult. The assigned term is 'psychic numbing.'

As a defense mechanism, psychic numbing is invaluable because it protects us from being constantly assaulted by grief; however, this mechanism can also hinder very generous and good people from taking much needed action in times of great need - - like now in Darfur. The only way around this defense mechanism and toward positive action is by conscious effort. One must make a conscious effort to see beyond the statistics. This means we must make a choice to commit time to educate ourselves about the specifics of the genocide. We must reflect on these specifics and try to truly comprehend the range of struggles the people of Darfur are facing. We must consciously try to achieve and maintain a level of compassion that prompts action, instead of surrender.

For some, having a face to associate with a struggle helps make it more "real" to them. I rely on this technique at times. On those days when the slow progress toward ending the genocide leaves me feeling discouraged and powerless, I see the face of a woman. I have never met this woman. I saw her once in a documentary about the genocide in Rwanda. In the documentary, she eloquently pleads for help from the news crew that is filming her and about a hundred other Tutsis that have gathered together after fleeing their Hutu pursuers. She knows once the film crew leaves, the Hutus mulling about at the periphery of the gathering area will attack. And, that's what happens: the film crew leaves and the Hutus slaughter every person in that group, including the beautiful, well-spoken woman.

I imagine standing face to face with this woman. She asks me what I am doing to help end the genocide in Darfur. I look at her and wait for words to form, but they never do. Instead, every time, I simply get back to learning and doing more about Darfur. It is the only answer I feel she deserves. I sometimes feel no less discouraged, but I am always reminded of why to keep trying -- people's lives depend on it.