Yesterday, on my hour and 20-minute commute home, listening to NPR, I cried. This in itself is not that unusual; I frequently reach for the kleenex in the glove box. In fact, on the morning drive, I was desperately saving my eye makeup when they played a clip of Fred Rogers telling me he liked me just the way I am.
But this round of tears was followed by a round of soul searching. This story on All Things Considered is about two dogs brought to the US from Iraq by the family of a deceased soldier. It seems Sgt. Peter Neesley had been caring for the dogs on the outskirts of his base, and when he died last Christmas, his family decided to find a way to bring the dogs to Michigan. It's a tribute to Neesley and to his family, an expression of love and respect.
And yet. What does this say about us as Americans, that we can find a way to rescue a pair of dogs, while the civilian death toll rises? Don't get me wrong--I have nothing but admiration for this soldier and his family. Their devotion and courage and energy are remarkable.
I'm unhappy with myself. That I can cry over a pair of dogs, refugees from a war-torn nation, while I routinely tune out the numbers announced on the radio each day: 28 dead. 18 killed. Soldiers, police officers, unemployed seeking work. Merchants, children, families at a pet bazaar.
You may think I'm being hard on myself. But I don't think I'm being hard enough. Case in point: the day following the shooting at NIU, I caught a bit of a news report: 28 dead. My heart sank. And then I heard that this was the number killed in a suicide bombing--I can't even remember where. Iraq? Afghanistan? Pakistan? And for a moment, I was relieved. And then horrified at myself.
There's a term for this, I know--this ability, or willingness, of the human brain to distance itself from the pain of others. It's one reason we're more compelled by the story of one person who dies than we are by statistics. Somehow, we can connect, we can empathize, with experiences similar to ourselves. As our students often say, we can relate.
The challenge is to find a way--without giving in to the sort of tearful handwringing I'm engaging in here--to respond actively, to do something, about those we have so little in common with, who seem so very different from ourselves.