Sustainable empathy amid global tragedy

Opinion by Lily Zheng
Nov. 30, 2015, 11:59 p.m.

It’s been a rough few months in the world. Black students at Mizzou fled campus after threats made by white supremacists. Terrorism took scores of lives in Paris, Beirut and Baghdad. Transgender Day of Remembrance marked the deaths of nearly 300 transgender and gender-nonconforming people around the world due to anti-trans violence. Indonesia, ignored by most of the world, continues to burn. Thousands of Syrian refugees, after fleeing terrorist violence, were denounced as the very insurgents they sought to escape. Just last Friday, a shooter opened fire at a Planned Parenthood clinic, killing three people.

Next week is finals week at Stanford.

My friends often tell me in times like these to stop reading the news. “Don’t go on Facebook,” many of them say, and the suggestion is well-intentioned, for sure. But I know that even if I abstain from social media, turn off the breaking news updates sent to my email inbox, or even completely turn off my wi-fi, I am fighting a losing battle. Reality catches up to us all, Stanford bubble or not.

The issue at hand is one of mental health. How can we navigate the day-to-day comings and goings of our lives amid a backdrop of violence and tragedy? How can we keep getting up in the morning and going to class when echoes of the latest shooting or murder are fresh on our minds?

Apathy is one answer. Don’t care, don’t get offended, head down, scroll past, tune out. Most tragedy is too far away to have personal significance; sympathetically nod, try not to look too annoyed. You have too many things to do to be made to feel bad, and besides, none of your friends care either. As a coping mechanism or self-care strategy, apathy’s actually pretty effective – a wall of bulletproof glass and sound-canceling headphones between you and the world.

But being apathetic is hard when the people getting killed look like you. When the victims are of the same race, the same class, the same religion, the same gender; when the shooter holds the same “opinions” as the man on the Marguerite staring at you with angry eyes; when the town a mile away from where you grew up is the one reduced to rubble. Apathy is a privilege held by those safe enough not to care.

Say apathy isn’t your thing, though. Let’s say you make a conscious effort to be empathetic about the world, to give a damn, to read all the articles shared on your Facebook feed and jump into every conversation about current events. Empathy is exhausting. Death after death, tragedy after tragedy; it gets into our bones, coats our skin like a dust we can’t wash off.

And our models of self-care are, quite frankly, not good enough. We treat traumatic events like weights on a scale that must be balanced out with Good Things like chocolate or Netflix or therapy sessions, like one police shooting corresponds to three units of self-care, like enough nights out with friends instead of doing homework can bring things back to where they need to be. More tragedy simply means more self-care, and so on, to the detriment of our physical health, our schoolwork, our relationships and everything else that seems less important in the moment. The model of self-care I see so often on campus is inherently unsustainable – balanced or not, put too much weight on any scale and it’ll break.

It’s easy enough to call for a more sustainable empathy, but the devil, like always, is in the details. The following are three concepts I believe to be crucial for sustaining our empathy in today’s world.

Moving beyond powerlessness.

Events like the Paris attacks and police shootings are not happenstance occurrences, social equivalents of uncontrollable natural disasters (which, incidentally, we are able to affect). They are the results of complex systems, interlinked connections of societal structure, institutions, governments, cultures and beliefs. If people were able to create those systems that lead to tragedy, then I firmly believe that people can dismantle them. If we believe that we can act in response to these larger world events, we are choosing to situate ourselves in a state of agency, a position of empowerment. 

Intentional cycles of rest and action.

“Intentional” means understanding our positions as individuals and collectives in society, and the places through which we are most effectively able to enact change through action. It means thoughtfully understanding the limits of our own capacity and then acting critically within those limits, and on the flipside, reflecting on and understanding our individual needs and choosing methods of rest and self-care that meet them.

Believing we can win.

We must be able to imagine a world where violence is not inevitable. We need to be hopeful enough to dream that a world with no more police brutality, no more state-sanctioned violence, no more borders or wars or murders, is a world that is possible.

I write this op-ed as a suggestion, but I’m just one person. Maybe there are better models out there that I don’t know of yet, and if so, I’m happy to learn more. But we are situated in a volatile time, tangled amid violent systems. Tragedy won’t stop happening unless we change — we can grieve and mourn each tragedy with the knowledge that our sadness leads to action. We can act with resolution and rest with intention, understanding that we are always part of something bigger. And finally, we can overcome what lies ahead of us — whether final paper or structural violence.


Contact Lily Zheng at lilyz8 ‘at’ 

Lily Zheng '17, is a weekly columnist for The Stanford Daily, a Social Psychology major and co-president of the student group Kardinal Kink. Her weekly column revolves around consent culture, queer and trans identity, social justice and activism. In her spare time, she enjoys wearing too much black clothing, accidentally sleeping in her makeup and spending quality time with her partners. Contact her at lilyz8 'at' – she loves messages!

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