I recently discovered something about myself that I really don’t like at all. As much as I want to believe that I care about people, I am forced to admit that I really don’t, at least not nearly as much as I want to think that I do. Most of us don’t. We want to believe we care and we certainly try to portray ourselves as caring people, but if we’re really honest with ourselves we have to admit that we probably don’t really care as much as we know we should.
We want to believe that we aren’t racist, that we believe everyone has value and worth but at the core of our being, we really don’t believe it. If I can hear about 40 young girls kidnapped to serve as sex slaves for rebel soldiers in Cambodia and two minutes later forget all about it, then there is something wrong with the way I am seeing others. Should I really care less because they weren’t Americans and it didn’t happen in my own neighborhood? Don’t these 40 young girls have as much value and worth as my own daughters or the daughters of my friends next door?
Have you noticed that whenever a plane crashes or some tragedy hits somewhere in the world, the news always reports the number of Americans who were killed or wounded as if the tragedy is only a tragedy or that it’s somehow a worse tragedy because Americans were involved?
The core problem is that we tend to view others in terms of how they benefit or hinder us. We like those who make us laugh, feel that we belong, feel wanted; not so much the ones who make us uncomfortable, annoyed or repulsed. Those who don’t influence us, either good or bad, we simply don’t consider much at all.
Our current society values external rewards. These rewards (more money, a bigger house, good grades, a nicer car, a vacation home) rightly or wrongly determine our inner value. Our assessment of others, rightly or wrongly, ends up being based on these external rewards. We ourselves strive to get these rewards for ourselves in order to feel that we are valued as well. Other people around us then become hindrances or helpers in achieving those rewards and hence that inner value.
Psychiatrists and sociologists who have studied German soldiers in WWII have discovered that the only way they managed to witness and participate in the cruelty that was inflicted on those in the concentration camps was essentially by dehumanizing them. They saw them as less then human, more as objects than people.
I am not trying to say that we must feel deeply and personally for every person in the world. We would all burn out pretty rapidly if we tried. What I am saying, if only to myself, is that I need to see people around me as people rather than as opportunities or hindrances. Empathy is a learned behavior (just watch a toddler bash another toddler in the head with a toy and you’ll see what I mean). Children have to be taught to relate the physical or emotional pain they feel when they are injured with how others feel when they hurt them. It isn’t a natural association and it takes time to develop in children. It also seems that it’s pretty easy to unlearn. Our attempt to better ourselves and collect these external rewards means that it’s all too easy to lose sight of the humanness of those around us. It’s too easy to slip into objectifying others rather than seeing them as people like me who can be deeply affected by how I treat them.
I, for one, want to work toward seeing people as people more.
Rob Vajko lives in Purdy.
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