I do not want to write about the election.
I do not want to write.
I want to drink my coffee and watch the rain through the window and feel the cat purring on my lap. I could do this. I could shut off my computer and let the stories of ballooning COVID-19 cases and voter suppression and separated families fade into the background.
I am anxious about this country’s future. I am gripped with horror at the ever-evolving news. But I am also going to be late for an outdoor barbecue. I have to go grocery shopping. My homework assignment is due at midnight.
“This is how it happens,” writes Indi Samarajiva about a society’s collapse, “Precisely what you’re feeling now. The numbing litany of bad news. The ever rising outrages. People suffering, dying, and protesting all around you, while you think about dinner.”
I am in that fortunate fraction that has not been threatened this year by hunger, sickness, unemployment, isolation, violence, deportation. I volunteered to take calls from families who were running out of food, and then I put down the phone and cooked for myself from my own over-stocked pantry. At work, I advocated against crippling economic sanctions that disrupt the flow of humanitarian aid, and then I disconnected and played funny games online with my family.
Here is a truth that I’ve held like a shameful secret: Compassion is not effortless for me. I have to wake up every day and make myself care about harm and injustice that doesn’t directly affect me. I exercise compassion like a muscle, but it’s difficult and it’s tiring, and on mornings like this I want to forget for a moment that the rest of the world exists.
Psychologist Paul Slovak speaks about “psychic numbing,” the idea that as the number of victims in a tragedy increases, our empathy and willingness to help decreases. Our brains are not wired to respond to mass tragedy, and that is what the world has been throwing at us, tragedy after tragedy on such an unprecedented scale that they barely register.
For those who feel numb, I want to remind you (as I remind myself) that compassion is not some innate trait—it is something that can be practiced, a skill that can be honed.
For those who feel numb, I remind you (as I remind myself) that our energy and drive to continue will not come from the news as much as it will come from our relationships and the individual stories of people we care about.
“The grand scheme is not the only scheme,” Jonathan Nathan writes in McSweeney’s. “Individual lives are not lived from a forty thousand-foot view. They are lived at point-blank range.”
“To you and I,” he writes to the undecided voter, “the result of this election doesn’t matter. But it matters to someone. To a lot of someones. To the migrant parents who won’t be ripped away from their children, sometimes never to see them again, it matters. To the asylum seekers who won’t be denied the rights guaranteed to them by domestic and international law, it matters. To the people living with pre-existing conditions who won’t have the meager shred of meaningful health coverage stolen from them, it matters. To the activists and protesters who won’t be kidnapped in unmarked vans and held without charge, it matters.”
I don’t want to write about the election right now. I don’t want to think about the election right now. I want to play a board game or take a long walk in the crisp fall air. I want to drink my coffee and watch the rain until it slows to a drizzle. It takes effort to hold these simple desires against the life-or-death needs of my neighbors, to remember what is at stake, and to find the will to stay engaged.
“Do not be overwhelmed by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now, love mercy now, walk humbly now,” reads a quote from the Talmud that I see every time I open my computer, “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”
The week ahead will bombard us with news until we are numb. With humility, with mercy, and justice, we need to show up anyway. Whether your work is organizing and advocacy, dispelling misinformation or facilitating dialogue, feeding the hungry or teaching or healing, we are not obligated to complete any of this—but we can’t abandon it either.
Katerina Parsons (’15) lives in Washington D.C., where she works in advocacy at Mennonite Central Committee’s Washington office and studies international development at American University’s School of International Service. She spends a lot of time thinking about US policy towards Central America and North Korea, writing, singing, and searching for the city’s best pupusas (suggestions welcome).