Out of My Mind: The Scales of Compassion

As I write this, the world’s attention is drawn to the passengers trapped (or dead) on a submersible that was searching for the Titanic. We can’t help but put ourselves in their place—squeezed together in a 25-foot-long tube with limited oxygen, no food, little if any water, no toilets, and no seats. Putting ourselves in their place is natural. Feeling aligned with their peril is decent and empathetic. We would be cold-hearted to feel otherwise. However, I know that trolls will turn on them for being millionaires and billionaires, spending approximately $200,000 each for this ill-fated and probably crushingly fatal journey. In my view, this would be wrong.

Our nature as humans is to explore, leave home, cross dangerous oceans, find new lives, explore the unknown, climb every mountain, and boldly go where no one has gone before. People risk and die, but oceans are crossed, space is explored, and the depths are plumbed. Explorers are at risk, and many die. Pushing our limits—even when paying the ultimate price, which is not in money—is part of our DNA.

The great question that this human story raises is not about wealth but our seemingly selective compassion. We watch and wait and hope for these few on the same day that 700 hundred nameless (to us but not their families) are lost off the coast of Greece. We read daily of the hundreds of humans who drown trying to cross the Mediterranean in search of better lives for their families. We should have compassion for those who die trying to get to our border or perish in the desert having crossed into our land. We understand they are human beings motivated by the same impulses that drove Abraham out of Ur, Moses out of Egypt, the Pilgrims out of England, and attracted waves of refugees seeking the American dream.

Why are we not as tuned in to their plight as the people on the submersible? Are our hearts so hardened that we can’t empathize with their pain, struggle, and deaths? No! I do not believe we are cold-hearted and unfeeling. I do believe that if we try to deal with large numbers, our hearts couldn’t survive the pain. We can feel for the 33 copper and gold miners trapped underground in Chile.

We could follow their story and peril and eventually celebrate their semi-miraculous rescue. We cared, and they were not wealthy or famous—but just the right number for us to be able to relate to. It was the same story with the even more miraculous rescue of the 12 young soccer team members in Thailand trapped in a flooded cavern. The world drew near and cared. We celebrated their survival—even though they were essentially unknown to us. They were children, and they were trapped. We didn’t know them, but we cared. So, when I ask why we can’t take in the plight of large numbers—of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust—I’m not trying to induce guilt. We can’t feel the loss of a parent, sibling, or friend and multiply it by six million, one million, or even one hundred. We can respond with sorrow and pity, but we can’t take that number fully into our hearts.

What we can do and what we actually do is to narrow the field down to a knowable number or even a single person. Six million? Impossible. But Anne Frank? We can relate to and empathize with a single symbol of an infinitely larger tragedy. The picture of the young Vietnamese girl during the Vietnam War running naked, her clothing having been consumed by Napalm, touches our hearts. The young woman at Kent State screaming silently to us from the picture voiced our nation’s pain more than the recitation of the numbers of dead could. She brought a singular power to the pain of so many across our divided country. Great causes are not automatically advanced by large numbers.

Over 3.5 million children die of starvation in Africa each year. This is too much pain to fathom. We need to find Africa’s, Anne Frank. At the height of the AIDS plague, the numbers were too large to make most people open their hearts. Magic Johnson and Rock Hudson gave HIV/AIDS faces, stories, and humanity. Even in our relationship with the nonhuman world, we need manageable numbers to give us a sense of connection. “Save the Whales?” That doesn’t draw in a lot of people, but the film, Free Willy, opened hearts. So did the 1985 story of Humphrey the Wayward Whale of San Francisco Bay. As he wandered through the Bay up towards the Delta, throngs of Bay-Area people gathered along the shore to see him and, yes, pray for him. Armadas assembled to show him the way back to the sea. They finally succeeded. Humphrey lived. But two hundred pods of threatened but nameless whales at sea? Forget about it.

We now know the names of the five people on the eerily and ironically named submersible, the Titan. When the original Titanic sank with 1,500 deaths, well, as the song went, “It was sad when the great ship went down.” However, if these five perish, it will be tragic.

1 reply »

  1. “Selective compassion” that is what I saw all over social media. It was disheartening! People making rude comments and asking why we should care about millionaires. There were 700 lost lives and noone mentioned anything about these poor people. Come on! What has happened to the souls of these people? No compassion or concern!