The long read: We have never been more aware of the appalling events that occur around the world every day. But in the face of so much horror, is there a danger that we become numb to the headlines and does it matter if we do?
In April this year, a woman calling herself Apathetic Idealist wrote to an advice columnist at the New York Times, asking for help in overcoming a sense of political paralysis. This condition, which was keeping her from engaging in real action, began in November 2016, when Donald Trump won the US presidential election. I continue to be outraged by this administrations treatment of Latinos, Native Americans, Muslims, LGBT folks, women and so many others, she wrote. But Im struggling to summon a response.
I have no doubt that many people can relate to your letter. I can relate to it, began the response from the columnist, Roxane Gay. It is damn hard to expand the limits of our empathy when our emotional attention is already stretched too thin.
This seems to be an increasingly common condition. Glance at Twitter or Facebook, and youll probably see someone say, Im so tired. There is so much bad news that it feels like were running out of emotions. I can relate to Apathetic Idealist, too. For the past several months, I have experienced a creeping psychic exhaustion. Im in a numb period, I tell my friends when they send me frantic texts about the days events or ask me how Im holding up.
It wasnt always like this. In the months after Trumps election, my husband, John, printed out the phone numbers of our government representatives in Colorado, where we live, and stuck them on the fridge. We started calling them weekly, demanding, even begging them to fight on our behalf to defend the Americans with Disabilities Act, to fight the attacks on minorities and immigrants and trans people, to fight for gun control. They were supposed to be working for us, werent they? My heart would beat faster as I made these calls, trying to translate my anger and fear into something coherent.
Sometimes the public outcry seemed to work. A rushed Republican bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act a flawed but important step toward universal healthcare, established under Barack Obama failed to find support. It felt like a victory. But a few months later, those same senators cut billions from government healthcare programmes under the guise of tax reform. I made a number of calls to my representatives about the tax plan, but it didnt help; this time, the Republicans in Congress had enough votes to pass their plan into law.
I havent called my senators in months. It was starting to feel like a waste of time and energy. On most occasions, our Republican senators office doesnt even answer the phone. Most of the time, outrage itself feels largely useless. Stay mad, social media activists like to say. How hard is it to stay mad, I remember thinking last year just watch 20 seconds of any news clip. But it did, in fact, get hard to stay mad. The news is still horrifying, at home and around the world; I know this intellectually, but the physical feeling of horror is gone.
Theres a clinical name for what Apathetic Idealist and many of us are feeling: its called compassion fatigue. Psychologist Charles Figley defines compassion fatigue as a state of exhaustion and dysfunction, biologically, physiologically and emotionally, as a result of prolonged exposure to compassion stress. Symptoms include behavioural changes (becoming easily startled, a reduced ability to remain objective), physical changes (exhaustion, anxiety and cardiac symptoms) and emotional changes (numbness, depression, decreased sense of purpose). It is an important framework in professions such as nursing, where over-exposure to trauma can lead to health problems for the nurses and worsened outcomes for patients. But it can and has been applied to the general population, too, especially when we are saturated with pleas for attention.
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