It’s not because we don’t care; it’s how the human brain works. And it’s not just an individual phenomenon. Psychic numbing has evolved as a manifestation in societies. As the number of victims in a tragedy increases, our empathy, our willingness to do something, reliably decreases. The value of a single life or the impact of a single death diminishes against the backdrop of the overwhelming magnitude of the issue – individually and collectively.
One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.
– Joseph Stalin.
It’s why a single life is more important than the difference between 57 and 58 lives. In fact, one study found that human compassion begins to fade when the number of people in danger increases from one person to just two. Another study found that people were less likely to help save 4,500 lives in a refugee camp if that camp had 250,000 people than if it only had 11,000 people. It’s completely illogical; they would be saving 4,500 people either way. But a larger tragedy makes us feel more powerless and less empathetic.
Perhaps the best example of this is the 3-year-old Syrian boy who washed up dead on a Turkish beach. Even though over 5,000 refugees were killed in 2016, the image of the tiny body of Alyan Kurdi prompted governmental policy changes and raised more money and social awareness than all of the other lost lives combined. We collectively cared about this one child, but the hundreds of thousands before him didn’t move most of us to do more than shake our heads.
When it comes to unthinkable tragedy, big numbers are abstract, while one face is a real person. We are moved by “the one” but apathetic to the plight of “one of many.” Even if we are passionate about the cause, over time we unconsciously attenuate the abstractions until they become unnoticeable.
Fighting psychic numbness takes intention because it goes against our instincts.
As the research suggests, the next shooting will make us more numb, more apathetic, and less empathetic. Perhaps today, the best we can do is understand the influence of psychic numbing as we grieve for the masses. But, maybe from that understanding, we can look for “one of many” and act for that one.
You can worry about where and when the next shooting will happen or you can join 11-year-old Ruben Martinez in his #ElPasoChallenge to do 20 good deeds to commemorate each one of the lives lost during the massacre.
You could throw your hands in the air over the 13 million children who go hungry in this country, or you could volunteer for an hour in a local soup kitchen.
You could shake your head at the staggering statistic that more than half a million people will sleep outside or in an emergency shelter tonight, or you could donate those clothes you no longer wear.
Democrat. Republican. Liberal. Conservative. Christian. Jew. Atheist. White. Black. Brown. Immigrant. Addict. Transgender. Convict. Homeless. You can judge them, vilify them, protest them, or feel sorry for them. You can be numb to the daunting issues that face our country. Or, you can put your beliefs and values and convictions to work – with intention – one day at a time, one person at a time, one impactful action at a time.
My challenge to you: Find “one of many” today and do one thing that matters. See one real face and personify what is meant by “person of worth and child of God.” See one real face and demonstrate the empathy and compassion that each of us needs at our lowest point. See one real face as someone’s mother, father, sister, brother, son or daughter who just might need the kindness of another human being.
And then do it again tomorrow.
And do it again the next day.
“A human being is part of the whole, called by us ‘Universe’; a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely but striving for such achievement is, in itself, a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.”
– Albert Einstein