Why Do I Find It So Easy To Ignore All The Bad Stuff In The World?

It’s scary to acknowledge and pain that is not our own, because our hearts are built with the urge to do something about it. Acknowledging it means taking some vague level of responsibility for those that we don’t want to be our responsibility.
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February 5, 2013
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Why do we human folk so often forget to give a toss about things until they hit us with a personalised whack in the retina? Sometimes I think we should be more like dogs. Dogs seem to lick everyone and everything. We only lick stuff when we absolutely have to. Or, if the thing is really delicious. Great metaphor, I’m glad we’re getting off on the right foot.

Anyhow: the results are in. The United Nations’ Human Rights Council has finally delivered a report that deems Israel’s settlement policy as a violation of international law. Israel apparently doesn’t feel like talking about it right now, but the report requires that Israel “cease all settlement activities” since they violate the human rights of Palestinian civilians.*

Have you been following this? Yes? No? Me, I’m jumping for joy and high-fiving my cat and I’m probably going to eat six cupcakes to celebrate this kickass human rights development.

You, on the other hand, might be choking up and hate-tweeting the UN over it – whatever floats your boat.

And although some of you will be all over this news, others will probably avoid clicking links with screeching keywords like “West Bank riots” and “more Palestinians displaced”. Not because you don’t give a shit, but because emotional investment is a bitch at the best of times.

Add hundreds of thousands of ruined lives + countless years of complex dispute to the mix… keeping up with the dialogue isn’t exactly a walk in the park.

We human people tend to prefer to ignore filling our brains with mortifying content, don’t we? Well, unless and until we are forced to touch or feel or see it in a personal way, and then, strangely enough, the giving-a-toss thing kicks in. Like it kicked in for me when I went to the West Bank.

That’s me, sitting beneath the wall on the West Bank, in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. I had snagged an opportunity to spend three weeks in Jerusalem, studying Israeli law and the Israel/Palestine conflict, as an elective for my (Australian) Law degree.

On either side of this, I spent three months traveling through Syria, Jordan, Turkey and Egypt. During the time I was based in Israel, I traveled to the West Bank and explored Palestinian parts of Jerusalem, despite a lecturer's stern warning to avoid anything Arab-related (yep, that happened. Whilst the curriculum did thankfully incorporate an array of views from both sides of the debate, this was a doozy. Thank you, kind sir, for your hate-fueled fear-mongering, but I'll be right thanks!)

So, the rocky, pot-holed dirt track we pulled up on was a far cry from the bustling streets of Jerusalem where we had first met our taxi driver, outside the Old City.

We pulled up on the side of what looked like it used to be a street. To the left was a tiny falafel shop. To the right was the wall. The first person I met on the West Bank was the man making falafels. He told me he had owned the falafel shop for years, and sold falafels there every day.

When the wall was built next to his shop, he kept it there, and now he looked at the wall every day as he worked. It made him just enough money to support his family. He said that too many people didn’t have homes anymore, because the wall was built on top of them or in front of them.

And then he said that a little boy was shot and killed yesterday because he was playing with a toy gun inside his house. Just like that. A huge concrete wall that the little boy didn’t understand was built outside his house, and an Israeli sniper sitting on top of it didn’t look closely enough before he pulled the trigger. Yesterday.

But there was nothing unusual about it, he said. It feels fucked and redundant to even attempt to convey the depth of their physical and emotional destruction.

I felt stupid for feeling my heartbreak because my heart was in mint condition compared to the hundreds of thousands of people around me. I felt stupid because it was not new.

Life for these people, and far, far too many others, had been a constant hellish nightmare long before I set foot onto the West Bank – but it doesn’t matter how much I’d read about it before I went, this was the most brutal slap of awareness possible.

This side of the wall, on the West Bank, was covered with graffiti (political, mostly) and at the foot of it was dirt, smashed concrete, rubble and remnants of a trampled existence. On the Israeli side, en route from Jerusalem: a polished highway, lined with a shiny silvery-grey wall that could easily be mistaken for a simple sound barrier. It’s almost pretty.

It’s scary to acknowledge a pain that is not our own, because our hearts are built with the urge to do something about it. Acknowledging it means taking some vague level of responsibility for those that we don’t want to be our responsibility – like the falafel man, and the boy that got shot in his home.

I think we’d all rather hang in our comfort zone where every dollar is our own and every spare thought floats daintily away on space unicorns to fun places.

I’m not suggesting that we’re all assholes for not embarking on a grand mission to save the world in one fell swoop. But maybe we should attempt to connect with the reality and the humanity of something that is foreign or in trouble or seemingly irreparable; to recognize it and feel it for a moment; to know that it’s real…

Today I sat at the traffic lights waiting for green, and as I glanced up from “not checking my email”, I accidentally made eye contact with a homeless man walking towards my car. I could not rip my gaze away quickly enough.

Cue awkward/conflicted dialogue between my conscience and my brain. Shit, no, don’t look. If I looked, he’d come over and inevitably ask for money or something. But he had this smile… a big toothless smile and warm eyes. And a Starbucks cup intended for coin-collecting. I should look up. I’m being a cold-hearted, selfish bitch.

So, I looked up with a forced attempt at a polite smile, which came out as this nervous, rigid, lip-tightening thing that was nothing like a smile at all. As soon as his eyes widened at this acknowledgment, I did this awkward nod/head-bop thing, which morphed clumsily into a pitiful/guilty headshake as I attempted to convey that I was actually not going to roll down my window and give him money. He smiled and shrugged and moved on.

The light turned green, and I internally bitch-slapped myself for, (a) being so painfully awkward, and (b) instinctively deciding to avoid/ignore/hate the situation rather than acknowledge it, roll down the window and give this guy my spare change that I was never going to fucking use anyway.

See, it’s not about the dough. I think it’s because I’m afraid that if I looked that guy in the eye for too long and engaged with him on some level, I’d see his pain, feel bad for his misfortune and guilty for my comparatively luxurious existence.

Truth is, all I had to do was pop a few coins in his cup. He’d smile, I’d smile, it’d be relatively genuine, and life would go on. I’d probably still be sad for the guy, and his life would still be fucked. But at least it would have been real.

Are you feeling me on this? I don’t even think that writing this will guarantee that I’ll treat the next homeless person any differently, to be brutally honest. I think there’s something odd and concerning about our tendency to avoid emotional involvement on any level in situations that do not directly affect us.

When I open my daily 942-tabbed browser consisting of various news outlets, I’d say I instinctively click and scroll away from about 50% of the content. As for other tear-jerking, heart-prodding, genuinely significant issues that really deserve to be heard… well, I still find myself maintaining a safe distance between me and anything that looks like it might wreck my day/hour.

Yep, I still cringe at interaction with homeless people. And I still favour a conversation about Obama’s hot ass (I mean, presidency) over the most recent school shooting, or the decrepit old house across the road that may or may not have an almost-dead woman living in it. Alone. In dire need of help.

It’s a protective mechanism to an extent, I’m sure. I guess none of us have room to fill ourselves with every single one of the world’s problems. But sometimes - like today – I think that we can afford to ignore less, and that we would probably not explode because of it, right? …right? …

Yeah, yeah. I heard you through the internets. I’m going to call the neighbours right now and see what’s up with this old lady across the road. I sure hope I don’t explode because of it.

Catch me on Twitter: @shanrahw.