During the week, I work with brokers, mostly responding to requests for proposals for reinsurance services, and with my division’s marketing and communications folks as well. On Sundays, I wear another hat, teaching religious school to second graders. The extra income is good, but so is the satisfaction of seeing children read and speak Hebrew or tie together mitzvot and middot with their own lives or become more aware of holidays or Torah portions, and knowing it is because I was able to reach them through my teaching. Today was the second day of class, and with Rosh Hashanah around the corner, we were diving in to a lot.
Nonetheless, this Sunday, hell, this entire last week, I’ve been distracted. And that’s because I’ve been preoccupied with Irma. With immediate, extended and former family all hunkering down in South Florida and elsewhere in the state instead of coming up to me when they could have (no Jewish guilt there!), who can blame me if I’ve become a little obsessed with hurricane tracking, compiling tips for minimizing damage and checking on the family’s power situation? I spent the better part of my evening trying to connect up my former sister-in-law with her daughter to let her know her parents, despite no power, no internet, no calls out, no idea what’s going on in the world, a few leaks in their home, were okay.
It goes without saying that when those we know and love are in the line of fire, it takes up more of our attention and concern than if we were talking about strangers.
But that doesn’t make the fires in Oregon or Colorado any less tragic. Or the earthquake in Mexico. Or the flooding in South Asia – it is almost inconceivable to imagine that over 40 million people’s lives in India, Bangladesh and Nepal have been impacted. Forty million! How can we even process this?
First, know that just as people with biases need to work towards getting past labels to get to the individual, we have to also stop seeing it only as a number, but understand these are each husbands, wives, grandmothers, nephews, daughters, aunts who have lost a home, a school, a place of employment, and in some cases, an entire town. Can you imagine your town being washed away? Bringing what happened home might help you see the depth of their tragedy, but would it mean enough for you to open your pockets or lend a hand?
Maybe, maybe not. From what I’ve read about marketing, especially in the fundraising world, and what I’ve seen on Israeli late-night television shows back in the early 2000s and on social media today, it is the personal story that moves people to open their wallets, not the big statistics. (Maybe this is why crowdfunding platforms are usually so successful, although I think they risk backlash as more exploit them to fund field trips and tuition and honeymoons.)
But what this means is that just as people brought together by a common association can form a community of members who want to help each other do and be well, if we try hard enough, we can extend that ability to feel compassion and the desire to help outside of our community. It is a very difficult thing to do – to humanize in the face of such enormity. So start where you can.
It’s difficult to reconcile the very human tendency to act – either positively or negatively – only towards those one can in some way identify with to what our world is lacking and needs, a stronger sense of global community. We can imagine our homes getting hit by Irma or destroyed in a housefire, and so we open it up to others. We can put ourselves in the place of an adult with a parent or child suffering from a debilitating or life-threatening disease and so we lend a hand or make a donation. These are the times when it is easy to help.
But what about when we cannot identify? And what are we willing to do to extend our own sense of humanity and treat others – be they from other countries or other cultures, other races or other religions – with the same care we would treat one of our own? This is not an easy exercise. But one I would like to try. How far can I take empathy? How far can you?