One of the highlights of my work is that it allows me to meet people from all over the world right here in my hometown. A few days a month I help out with an organization that provides assistance to immigrants and refugees who are new to the St. Louis area. I try not to pry or ask unnecessary questions, but often enough I become privy to stories of great pain and hardship. Youths from Sudan and Somalia, women from war-torn Congo, victims of Bhutanese and Bosnian ethnic cleansing, endangered translators from Iraq and Afghanistan – I feel honored and privileged to be a part of their lives. Hopefully I’m able to provide some measure of hope and healing to them after having experienced far too much of the darkness of this troubled and chaotic world.
The other day I was speaking with a young man whose entire family still remains back in one of the cities most devastated by the Syrian civil war. He fled there without many of the documents that all of us here in the U.S. would just assume will follow us wherever it is we might go. Unfortunately, the simple act of mailing a letter home to request them – to the extent that the postal service might actually succeed in getting a letter through – is in and of itself a potentially life-threatening act. Can you imagine what would happen to his family in Syria if the wrong person found out that they were receiving correspondence from someone in the United States – someone in the bosom of the great Satan?
In the course of our conversation, this young man described having met someone here in the U.S. who was totally unaware of the fact that there is a civil war going on in Syria this very moment that is causing dislocations of people as haven’t been seen since World War II. A combination of disbelief, exasperation, and pain crossed his face in the short time it took to describe the interaction. Yes, I can imagine how difficult it must be to realize that people you know and love are facing possible annihilation back in your hometown even as others go about their lives blissfully unaware.
We cause pain with our lack of awareness. Thankfully, though, our awareness can facilitate healing. This is not merely some squishy spiritual talk, it is reality as evidenced by numerous studies related to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), its onset, and its mitigation. It turns out that when trauma is borne by the victim or victims alone, without any social support or acknowledgment, there is an increased likelihood that PTSD will result. Conversely, when trauma is acknowledged in a supportive and non-judgmental way the risk of developing PTSD is diminished.
Compassion fatigue is all too common these days. There is so much heartache in the world that it seems at times as though the only sane course of action is to focus our energy on shutting it all out of our lives as best we can. We stop paying attention to the news. We stop engaging in anything political. We simply focus on what’s going on with our family, our friends, our job, and our spiritual community. Some even try to reframe their purposeful lack of awareness in positive spiritual terms: “I’m changing the world by changing myself.” “I’m trying to be the peace that we need in the world.” “I’m turning my energy toward that which I can actually change.” “I’m just trying to focus on the joy that exists.” Sadly, such self-serving abandonment of that which is in our sphere of influence only helps perpetuate the deep suffering of the world.
Do you wonder what it’s like to be an African-American from a scorned, forgotten, under-resourced, and underserved part of town; to be kept in poverty with aggressive and disparate policing practices that siphon away your money if you have it, or take away your freedom if you don’t; to have your people treated as expendable if they should run afoul of the law – not worthy of even calling for backup in order to keep their blood from being spilled? Do you know what it’s like to live in such a world and then have that reality absolutely and completely ignored by society at large? What if each of us simply let our awareness of this reality be known?
Do you wonder what it’s like to be a Palestinian from one of the ghettos created by the ever-expanding state of Israel; to have your land and your freedom of movement taken from you; to have whatever meager attempts at self-defense some of your people might feel compelled to mount be met with overwhelming and indiscriminate death and destruction; to have your very natural anger and frustration at the inequities of your plight be used against you to justify the very treatment that is so abhorrent. Can you imagine what it’s like to live in such a world where the reality of your circumstances are so absolutely and completely ignored or denied by those who have your fate in their hands – and those who would support them? What if each of us simply let our awareness of this reality be known?
There are times when the causes of the suffering of this world can appear so complex and intractable as to seem unworthy of all but the most quixotic of efforts. And yet at other times it seems that if we would only just bring the full power of our awareness to bear on them, these causes would naturally give way to a much more healthy and just set of circumstances. I’m sure I’ll be thinking often of the young Syrian man that I mentioned earlier. I’ll be thinking of the pain on his face while contemplating that the plight of his people might be unworthy of our attention. I’ll be thinking of the healing power that our awareness can have.
Man carrying child after bombing in Aleppo, Syria via CTV News:
Copyright 2016 by Mark Robert Frank