What Makes Us Squirm?

Becca Friedland

With Hurricane Sandy upon us, I can’t help but think about the memory of other hurricanes past, like Irene and Katrina. It is ironic, I believe, the hoopla that this storm has received, given that hur-ricanes go on all the time. On some level, we care because it’s our problem. On another, because major cities like Washington and New York will be affected. But I can’t help but feel that a few weeks from now, we will all ease back into our comfortable ways of living and this moment will just have been an-other fun week in college history where we wore our PJs inside-out hoping for no school.

What I am really getting at here is trying to understand what it is that makes us tick, makes us squirm and drives us to care. Disasters go on all over the world, all the time. Take the flooding in Paki-stan, the earthquake in Haiti, the tsunami in South East Asia or the tornados in Alabama, for example. They are all so powerful, so moving, when the TVs we watch have nothing else to broadcast, to the point that even the most compassionate people just want to turn it off because they can’t stand to hear about it anymore (analogy: “Call Me Maybe” fatigue). But what about a few weeks out? We send out dollars to places of need, we feel good about ourselves and then we let ourselves forget.

There is good reason for this, of course. If we let ourselves feel burdened by all the struggles of this world all the time, we would never want to get out of bed. And, let’s be honest, homeless children in Haiti don’t really affect my day-to-day routine. But I can’t help but feel guilty and almost like I’m play-ing some strange game of d?ej? vu when the next big catastrophe comes along. Not only does it remind me of what I have forgotten, but also about how cyclical my level of caring has become.

So what do we do? How do we avoid compassion fatigue? One answer may be to look towards the media, perhaps not to tone down the deafening loops of sound bite and image that pull at our heart-strings, but to at least recycle old stories and bring us back to past issues so that we can never completely forget. I would say this hurricane would call for a great segment on Katrina and how the people of New Orleans have yet to completely recover from that terrible event. Connect to it in ways that take inro ac-count my own concerns for my family in Maryland to families in New Orleans. There has to be a way to sustain our humanity for more than a few weeks after something terrible happens.

There has to be a way to channel the camaraderie and patriotism and “we will get through this” men-tality and return to it again and again. We must not forget what has happened. Perhaps this hurricane will remind us (us, being the comfortable students and citizens of this country), that there are still places that need our help. Tuscaloosa, for example, is still in need of dire recuperation, and I am grateful that the COVE will be going there soon to help with building efforts.

Or maybe what we only need is for things to hit closer to home. Maybe we have to be shaken for our consciousness to be awakened. If that is true, it is a sad reality but a true reality. As Azar Nafisi said to my Living Writers class in her visit two weeks ago, “Why is it that it takes a school girl getting shot by the Taliban for the world to wake up and recognize the human rights violations going on in Pakistan?” The same can be said about almost all terrible things that happen. We care about them when they are palpable and tangible, and when they stir something in us that makes us angry, upset or frightened. We have to find a way to keep these emotions present and to care more for the things we cannot see right in front of us.

Contact Becca Freidland at [email protected].