Unwilling to Pay the Price for Empathy

By Jason Menard

Sometimes no matter how badly we want to feel – or think that we should – we just don’t have the emotional or intellectual wherewithal to do so. And for that, selfishly, I’m thankful.

Recently, every time I turn on the news, log onto the Web, pick up a paper, or listen to the radio I’m bombarded by the horrors of what’s happening in Lebanon. To add my wife has a friend in the area, and another of our friends was to have a wedding ceremony in Lebanon this summer.

Obviously, we have more than a passing interest and we watch the news with interest. Yet, while the idea of rockets passing over my head and threatening my very existence is terrifying, the magnitude of the horror just doesn’t resonate with me.

I don’t know where to stand on the Israeli-Palestinian issue – we have friends on both sides, and most commentators, while professing neutrality, display a bias – but I do stand firm on my revulsion for the fact that it’s the average citizen that’s bearing the brunt of this ideological war.

These are battles designed in backrooms and boardrooms, but played out on the streets of Israel and Lebanon. As North Americans, we’re familiar with the concept of war, but foreign to its realities – a reality that’s all too present for too many of our counterparts throughout the Middle East and in other places around the world.

Absence doesn’t just make the heart grow fonder – it smoothes out the rough edges and romanticizes things. Living in Canada, we’re so far removed from the horror of any conflict. A car backfires and we jump – for many in other less-stable countries, the sound of gunfire is part of the ambient soundtrack of their lives.

How can we relate? How do I, who feels safe in all parts of this wonderful country of ours, empathize with people who live with the knowledge that today could be their last day – that their lives could be cut short by a rogue missile, a suicide bomber, or some other implement of destruction deployed by unseen leaders standing at the back lines of the conflict. The front isn’t a line on the map – it’s a real area that can, at times, run through a village street or residential neighbourhood.

I have never had to evacuate my home. The closest thing to a hardship we endured was living through the Ice Storm in Montreal. But even then we were lucky in that we didn’t lose power. We welcomed some friends into our home as they lost power, but it was more of a festive atmosphere filled with wonder than anything resembling fear.

How am I to relate to our friends who will be packing up a few belongings for a ship that will bear them to a strange land, until they can be flown back to Canada? When we see them in Montreal, where they once lived, it will seem like old times, not war time.

What must it feel like to leave your home, not knowing whether or not you’ll return – or even whether there will be anything to return to? How does one deal with the waiting for a passage to safety – the worry that anything can happen in a day?

The fact is that we don’t live in a country that’s torn asunder by war. Our petty political and social squabbles pale in comparison to the real-life drama that’s playing out overseas, not just in Lebanon and Israel, but also in Iraq, Afghanistan, and countless other strife-ridden regions. But each and every one of us can step outside our homes and feel safe that missiles, bullets, and bombs aren’t going to be a part of our Canadian experience. In fact, the idea is completely foreign to us.

A popular target for those who like to assign blame is that the media, whether it be video games, television, or film, is responsible for our desensitization towards war and violence. However, that’s wrong. It isn’t overexposure to war, but rather an underexposure to its reality that dulls our emotional response. Watching a firefight on TV will not send shivers up your spine and send you cowering in fear like being physically caught in the cross fire.

It’s hard to feel with the appropriate depth of feeling without relevant experience. Before I would watch televised vehicle accidents with nary a flinch. But now, over three years after a horrific head-on collision, I recoil involuntarily to a screech of tires or the sound of popping glass. And televised representations of accidents bring back the sights, sounds, feelings, and smells of that day behind the wheel.

We can be told fire is hot, but it doesn’t register until we get burned. Pain is a concept that can only be measured by experience. Happiness, joy, excitement can only be appreciated once they’ve been experienced — and so too is fear.

As much as I want to empathize with the innocents who are plagued by the fear and terror that war brings, the fact is that I’m deliriously happy that I can’t. And that’s one deficiency, as Canadians, we should be forever grateful for having.

The price for empathy is experience – and that’s a cost I’m not willing to bear.

2006© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

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