Thinking Makes It So: I've never met a Darfur rebel

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By Kelly LeVan

I read Monday on BBC that at least 10,000 people died as a result of this week’s earthquake in the Sichuan province in southwestern China. I read several news reports estimating more than 28,000 are dead in Myanmar after the cyclone. A mob killed two migrants in Johannesburg, South Africa, injuring 40 more. Upwards of 60 people have been killed in the last week in Tripoli, Lebanon, as fighting has flared between those who support the government at the Hezbollah-led opposition. Violence continues in Sudan, Israel, Iraq, Afghanistan – where have I left out?

I tend to isolate myself – to follow very closely the activities of the Los Alamos Arts Council, for instance, without knowing what’s going on as far off the Hill as Santa Fe, let alone Washington, D.C., or Beirut.

But since I returned from China in March, I’ve tried to take a little more interest in world news. I read the headlines out of Beijing every day, and click on other news headlines online a few times per week. For what it’s worth, I’ve also watched a few segments of “The Daily Show.”

I watched the BBC’s “One-Minute World News” over the weekend, and it left me feeling awful. Each recap, absolutely devoid of assurance or a sentimental cushioning of the blow, bluntly stated the facts of the matter: words like “disaster,” “neglect” and “fighting” shot out with few words in between. A sports piece marked the only story where victory was guaranteed for one side or the other.

My mom says staying informed about the terrible stories also lets us know about the great generosity that people exhibit – and yes, many countries, even some former enemies, have offered supplies, food and water to victims of the recent catastrophes.

I have trouble reading the news this way, rooting for the good that follows the terrible. I get stuck on the terrible, the part I feel helpless to fix or solve or heal in any way.

I hate the news, because all I can do is read it.

Of course, I can write my column, I can write checks – but neither seems more than symbolic, a metaphor for usefulness, at best.

I know humanitarian groups rally against this kind of attitude. Each voice, each dollar, each positive action matters, they say. I believe them. I understand that without any single drops of water we’d have no ocean. Without so many tiny oxygen atoms we’d have no life at all – nothing to read about, cry about, discuss, celebrate, hope for or praise.

But I get overwhelmed. I get burned out on conflicts and heartbreaks. I lose my inner peace, my nerve, my gumption, my connection and worse, my compassion.

In Shanghai, each morning a man with no legs pulling himself around on a low cart accosted us outside of our hotel. He looked like a man straight out of the Bible, from a time before hospitals and sterilization and motorized wheelchairs.

Are there amputees in America? Obviously, yes – but very few suffer this kind of lifestyle, begging a few inches above a city sidewalk.

I felt tremendous sympathy for him. I remember, when I lived in Boston, seeing homeless men and women sleeping in ATM stations and under trees in the Common. I felt sympathy toward them as well, and for the first several months I lived in Boston, I gave them all my change.

But after a while, they lose their uniqueness. After enough homeless men commented rudely on my legs or tattoos, I would see a man wearing layers of dirty clothes and instead of reaching for my quarters, I might think, please don’t talk to me.

After only a few days in Shanghai, I felt the same habituation taking place in my response toward the beggar in front of our hotel, even though he said nothing even remotely impertinent. He became one of hundreds trying to beg, sell and hustle me everywhere I went.

In part, maybe this attests to a serious flaw in my nature. But it also demonstrates how people care more about individuals than groups of faces we either can’t identify or no longer try to separate.

When I first learned about the attack on the twin towers, my first thought was for my friend Melissa, who lived in New York City and worked in Manhattan. I watched the TV news footage, listened as the death toll mounted and all I wanted to know was that she was OK.

I don’t know anyone in Myanmar. I’ve never met a Darfur rebel. I do know people in China, although not in the Sichuan province. I wonder if the helpless feeling I get reading international news would lessen if I knew someone living in South Africa – if it’s only motivation that’s lacking in me.

As it is, I care enough to feel guilty and disconsolate, but not enough to change my life or anyone else’s. It’s a limbo I’m not sure how to escape.