As death tolls rise, our empathy decreases
The current news
Every day we hear reports about the exponential increase of Coronovirus throughout the world. Charts show “Red” states where the color indicates not political affiliations, but Corona cases of more than 10,000.
Exclusive news briefings detail the rapid increase of the virus; charts emphasize the number of dead in countries across the globe, projections of the potential loss of income, loss of business, and loss of life flash across the screen in an infinite digital display.
But it’s not just about numbers. It’s personal.
Somewhere at this very second, someone has lost a loved one. A teenager is struggling to breathe. A grandparent is being moved to the Intensive Care Unit. Loved ones are separated from the ill, unable to provide comfort. Dying breathes are taken in isolation.
Right now, it’s the Coronavirus, but at other times it might be a major earthquake, a horrific tornado, or a massive tsunami. Personal tragedies are played out all over the world every hour of every day.
Not one of us is immune. Many good people die.
In our media-oriented society, we get facts, numbers, and death tolls of our current disaster on a minute-by-minute feed. We get so much information, in fact, that we’re ready to tune out.
It’s normal to want to ignore human pain
There’s a proven reason that you want to ignore the rising death toll: It is human nature to turn away from mass suffering. Even Mother Teresa said,
“If I look at the mass, I will never act.”
Two scientists, Deborah Small and Paul Slovic have coined a term for the idea that when tragedy strikes large numbers of people, we become desensitized.
They call it “the collapse of compassion.”
It’s much easier to feel compassion when you know one person’s tragedy, but much harder to care about dozens, hundreds, or thousands of tragedies.
Slovic calls it “psychic numbing.” As the number of victims in a tragedy increases, our empathy, our willingness to help, reliably decreases. This happens even when the number of victims increases from one to two.
When we see numbers rising into the hundreds of thousands, we usually “turn off.”
It’s a convoluted phenomenon: as the number of people affected by tragedy goes up, the sympathy of people and their willingness to give money or time decreases.
Joseph Stalin’s callous quote explains the phenomenon:
“A single death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.”
It’s not because you’re a terrible person. It’s because you control your emotions when the pain gets too great.
That control — the distancing of yourself or ‘cubbyhole-ing’ your feelings — protects you and keeps you from being overwhelmed.
How to be compassionate without being overwhelmed
Acknowledge your feelings. Express your sadness, your fear, your anger. Write about your feelings. Call a friend. Use a punching bag. Know that it’s okay to cry. Studies show that accepting emotions instead of suppressing them reduces the collapse of compassion. By recognizing your emotions, you actually increase the amount of compassion you feel for others.
Do something to help. Volunteer. Whether you’re singing from the balcony, delivering meals, donating money, or sewing masks, you are showing compassion instead of ignoring the crisis. Contributing something positive to a negative situation makes you feel better. One study suggested that 78% of people who performed volunteer work lowered their stress levels.
Balance your intake of news with the other aspects of your life. Don’t watch it all day long. Don’t check in with social media every minute. Set aside an amount of time for news, and then shut it down and move on. You can know what you need to know without obsessing about the facts and figures.
Practice gratitude. Think of what you have. Concentrate on the small, good things of daily life, knowing that not everyone is so lucky.
Our discomfort is temporary
Yes, we are uncomfortable now, told to shelter in place, feeling the loss of our personal liberty to move about freely.
We’re fighting the mania that comes when kids are underfoot 24 hours a day when our normal routines are shattered when the future is uncertain.
But our personal discomfort is not nearly as important as the ability to feel compassion for those who have suffered a loss.
Our discomfort is temporary. Their loss is forever.
Tom Stoddard once said,
“the bad end unhappily, the good unluckily. That is what tragedy means.”
Somewhere, someone at this instant has died unluckily, and we know it.
If we contemplate the personal loss caused by each of those deaths worldwide, we glimpse the pain of hundreds of thousands.
We see that the real tragedy lies in the hearts of the remaining citizens who must go on in the face of incomprehensible loss. It is painful to be aware of mass tragedy, but if we stop caring, we have failed the test of humanity.
The ability to feel for others is what makes us different from animals — what makes us human. If we stop contemplating the horrors of life and ignore the plight of others, we become mechanized robots, devoid of human feeling.
It may hurt, but we must be compassionate. If we are to remain human, we can’t ignore the pain of loss, no matter how many times it happens. When the good die unluckily, it is a tragedy that affects us all.
In John Donne’s immortal words:
“Every man’s death diminishes me, because I am a part of Mankind.”