The Natural Disaster of Empathy Overload (by Kurt Willems)
I once heard Pastor Shane Hipps (an expert on media technology and marketing) describe a consequence of globalized media. He talked about how as humans, we are designed to empathize with one another which should inevitably lead to compassionate action. So, when we see a natural disaster being covered on CNN, our hearts ache as we see everyday normal folks struggling to put the pieces of their lives back together.
Shane didn’t stop with that simple observation that we already know, but went on to discuss how media shapes our empathic capacity. Part of our human design is an ability to empathize with people who are suffering within our own proximity. We see their plight in everyday life and we can then take direct compassionate action. But over the past 50 years, our technology has progressed to the point where we literally know about nearly every human tragedy throughout the world… sometimes, even seconds after it has taken place. Whereas before, empathy was reserved for the local sphere, today we relinquish such on a globalized scale. We hurt for places we may never actually visit in the flesh.
The positives to this situation are evident. We should know when tsunamis, earthquakes, famine, disease, and any form of human suffering takes place abroad. We in the United States have more resources than we know what to do with, so having quality information and subsequent options for helping the hurting in times of crisis gives us the chance to make a real difference beyond our local sphere. This is truer today than ever before in human history. Even situations that seem “global” to a guy sitting on the couch typing an article on a laptop in California, such as the tornado devastation in Joplin, instantly this horrific disaster becomes part of my life thanks to cable TV’s impeccable coverage. I can now choose to give resources to aid immediate relief efforts and the web creates effective pathways to do so.
According to Shane, there can be a dark side to having access to all of the suffering throughout the world, however. Empathic capacity overload quickly overwhelms the senses potentially leading to post-tragedy paralysis. We easily become convinced that this is just another tragedy that makes us sad (like Haiti, Japan, Katrina, etc), so we shut down and decide to do nothing. Tomorrow the news will only get worse. Empathy overload!
Follow this to its logical conclusion and what happens to our everyday lives in our local contexts? The suffering person on the street corner by the Starbucks we study at becomes easier to ignore. The need for healthcare and education in our inner-city becomes someone else’s problem. And the most tragic result of this localized empathic paralysis is this: regular human needs that we encounter everyday do not make good headlines. Therefore, needs that could be dealt with locally become overwhelming and global needs become our quick $25 donation justice fix for the next 6 months until the next disaster hits. This is the natural disaster of empathy overload.
In an increasingly globalized media driven world, we Christians are going to need to learn how to overcome our empathic overload, if we are going to avoid missional paralysis. Should we give resources to global causes to fight injustices in places like Africa and other third world countries? Yes! Should we give what we can to the closer yet seemingly “global” crises (even places like the Midwest when you live in California) during times of great human need? Yes! But may we do so fully aware that our natural empathic capacities may be over-saturated by a new media driven reality, which is both a blessing and a curse for Kingdom people.
To give to Joplin rescue efforts go here. Also, if you give, ask God what he may call you to be a part of locally as well!
Kurt Willems is an Anabaptist writer and pastor who is preparing for church planting next year by finishing work towards a Master of Divinity degree at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary. He writes at: the Pangea Blog and is also on Twitter and Facebook.