Suffering is part of the overarching human narrative. In all of our stories there is suffering. The deepest tragedy is failing to recognize the suffering of others. I am often astonished at the bar we have to surmount to simply understand that someone’s hurting. Philosopher R. M. Hare aptly noted in Moral Thinking: Its Levels, Method, and Point that one cannot believe the need for action as a moral imperative by using the language of opinions alone, even if they are announced authoritatively quality. In other words just saying “That is wrong” isn’t enough to inspire action .
It is the lack of believing someone in trauma, the lack of attributing sentience—feelings—to other beings sharing the planet with us that causes so much damage. Often in our bystanding (or in the Trump administration’s case, blatant disregard) we potentially allow for the re-traumatizing of our already most vulnerable. We cannot get away from this: Separating children from their parents is traumatic.
The human body was made to endure. That is different than forcing bodies to endure undue burdens.
In a paper I wrote titled Flowering Minds: Jacob’s Strategy & Hurston’s Innovation in Writing a Unified Black Consciousness, I wrote about black women arguing for their sentience—quite seriously, their ability to feel pain although they “appear” to be continuing “productive” activity. What motivated abolitionists to take up the cause of sexual slavery within the slave trade was black women appealing, oftentimes, to Northern women. A group more likely to sympathize with their plight.
What motivates someone to adopt a set of moral behaviors, or to reframe, what moral thought requires, according to Hare, “is to put ourselves in place of someone suffering” and not a set of descriptive words or even an injunction such as “Thou shalt not commit adultery” . What Hare is saying is that saying something “is terrible” often is not enough to spark action on an issue. People have to see parallels. They have to see how one tragedy connects to another one closer to home. There is an ancient vehicle, formed over millennia that has help make this very leap, from one understanding of suffering to another possible: It is called a story.
In Amnesty International’s 2009 compilation of short stories and poems on human rights issues, the theme threaded throughout was how to bring to life each one of the 30 articles in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is by no accident that Amnesty International used the narrative form to help bridge the compassion divide that immobilizes otherwise concerned people to act.
In Uncle Meena by Ibtisam Barakat, it takes a story and a picture to warms grandmother’s heart into accepting her grandson’s cross-cultural engagement. From Meena’s grandmother’s home, whom he is visiting in Ramallah, they hear a group of children play fighting nearby. When they come outside to investigate, they question the boys about all the raucous. The children shout that they are playing “Jews and Arabs.” Meena quips back, “In America we call this game Cowboys and Indians—but in America you would all be Indians” . Meena was making a parallel in order to get the boys to stop and recognize that they believed was “innocent” play had subconscious implications.
Meena’s grandmother was able to look past cultural and religious barriers and give her blessing in Meena’s proposal to his girlfriend Panu, who is Native American. The grandmother made parallels between Panu’s experience growing up on “The Rez” and the plight of Palestinians in Ramallah. “Grandma had taken Panu into her heart” the narrator recounts .
The parallel that I found most poignant in helping the American public deepen their compassion for the young migrant children who were separated from their families earlier this summer was the comparison made to children in our current foster care system. There already was public outcry, coming from parents and leaders on both sides of the aisle calling for families to be reunited with their children, expeditiously. Thankfully, journalists and commentators committed to this story, continued to stay on the issue. Journalist Jacob Soboroff, in calling for the respecting of asylum seekers due process rights, called for his peers to stay on this issue. Mika Brzezinski from Morning Joe, even when the news cycle was shifting, continued to reiterate the imperative for bringing migrant families back together again.
When the news cycle began to shift, I started to notice the foster care comparisons beginning to rise. I believe it was a way to gather as many parallels to the issue of migrant children being separated from the parents as possible in order to keep needed and sustained compassion levels amongst domestic audiences.
According to the Administration for Children and Families, over 600,000 children spent time in the foster care system in 2016 . That means for every 100 Americans, two children spent time in foster care, spent separated from their families over a prolonged period under dire circumstances. That means the large part of the American public has close proximity in one way or another to children in foster care. What happens to children in our country is a domestic issue. Connecting the plight of children, fleeing from danger in neighboring countries to our domestic issues, brings us all closer together as a global family.
There has been progress made with the family reunification process. U.S. court filings note that 1,400 out of the roughly 2,500 children have been reunited with their parents . Central American counties are seeking to know where the children are, which assists with accountability and aiding parents find their children who may have already crossed back over the border . With all of the trade war contentions, countries somehow finding a way to work together for their most vulnerable members can provide somewhat silver lining.
"What motivates someone to adopt a set of moral behaviors...'is to put ourselves in place of someone suffering.'”
“’Bodies in motion’ often belong to those on the fragile margins of society” is what reviewer Tobias Grey writes of Olga Tokarczuk’s newly translated into English book, Flight,” which won her the Man Booker prize this past May . The book’s publisher, Fitzcarraldo Editions, remarks, “A lot of ‘Flights’ is about forging human connections and considering the other” . The connections we can make between what it means to be and what it means to be in transition is part of a globe full of experiences being had at this very moment.
With 24-hour news cycles and the onslaught of news tidbits on social media, we have to guard against the dulling of our sensitivity to the crises we hear about. It is our sensitivity that connects us to the global fabric. It is hard. It means being willing to be emotionally taxed when we all have our own daily struggles to surmount. Yet, our humanity must remain intact in this thing we call living. One way to keep our heart muscles freshened is to make new parallels to the stories we hear—even if the people affected by them look foreign to us. To suffer is to be human.