A friend and colleague of mine who does human rights work alongside me mentioned recently that she went on vacation and left her work phone off the whole time, only to fear when she turned it back on she would learn someone she’d been in touch with had been murdered the night before. It wouldn’t be the first time that had happened to her, and that remark didn’t really phase any of us sitting around having this conversation: we all knew how true it was to be hit with exactly that kind of bad news.

Another–former–colleague, who was with us for this conversation, remarked how in her new job–working comms for a radio station–she’d found herself thinking, as her new staffers panicked about the usual work stress that comes with running a radio station that, “I mean, it can’t be that bad, can it? No one was arrested. No one was murdered. We’re doing pretty good here!”

It reminded me of being out to dinner with some friends a few months ago who asked me how work was, and I went on a tirade–something to the effect of, “Well, I just feel like everybody is more stressed than ever. I live and sleep Ukraine, Ukraine, Ukraine. It was just Afghanistan. Before that, a coup in Myanmar. Violence in Ethiopia, Belarus, India. An insurrection here. Kinda hard to come up for air lately when it just feels like bad news from all sides, but when someone in a bomb shelter is reaching out for the best possible route to safety, you just roll with the punches, right?”

They stared at me blankly, one of them giving a half-chuckle, their eyes kinda glazed over and wide, and there was noticeable awkward silence, before one of them remarked, “That’s intense.”

I’ve had other friends who ask what I do, and I try to explain it, but they shut down pretty quickly or change the subject, and listening to my friend talk about her fears of keeping her phone shut off, it kind of hit me how bizarre and uncommon our conversation was, how overwhelming it is to some to even hear, but we were so steeped in it and desensitized to it, it was hard to understand the perspective of those who cannot, physically, emotionally, mentally process a five minute conversation with you about what you do, let alone imagine that anyone does that eight hours a day, everyday.

I’ve had people call the work heroic, and for a long time I didn’t understand or like that, because for most of us, all we do, is send emails all day long. But when the emails from Afghans trying to escape the brutality of the Taliban came pouring through, and I encountered pictures of Afghan women with bruises across their face begging for a way out of their homeland, I do think a part of me understood a little better why people would consider human rights “work” “heroic.”

And this isn’t a ‘toot my own horn’ kind of, “Hey look at what I do all day, isn’t it courageous” shpill so much as it’s me literally saying that I really struggle to put myself into the shoes of those who can’t field five minutes of bad news about the state of the world.

I mean, I can wrap my head around it logically: people right now are absolutely overwhelmed, all the time, with bad news. The pandemic seemed to supercharge everyone’s anxiety, and I can–on some level–empathize with the notion that if you’re out with a friend, you probably don’t want to get into a discussion about the conditions of an Egyptian jail and what it’s like to languish there dying of COVID–all because you spoke or wrote something critical on Facebook about the Egyptian government. Fair enough.

I’m an intense person. I accept that. I have a serious side I’ve never been able to shed. I can, most of the time, compartmentalize this stuff just well enough and long enough to actually enjoy conversation about it, probably largely because I’m so solution-oriented that I like entertaining new ideas about how to stop autocracy and its symptoms. But I’m also human, and I’ve had my share of moments where I couldn’t handle it, too, where it broke something in me, and the war in Ukraine has brought that home most recently.

So, on some big, important level–I get it. I get why we would shy away from human suffering. It’s kind of in our nature to avoid what it is we believe we’re not strong enough to handle, and often the suffering of others brings our own mortality just a little too close to home. I just don’t like that or want to admit it, I guess.

I wrote a friend about this–suffering, that is–during the early months of the pandemic and referenced a line or two by Duke theologian Stanley Hauerwas:

That we avoid the sufferer is not because we are deeply unsympathetic or inhumane, but because of the very character of suffering. By its very nature suffering alienates us not only from one another but from ourselves […]. To suffer is to have our identity threatened physically, psychologically, and morally. Thus our suffering even makes us unsure of who we are. It is not surprising, therefore, that we should have trouble with the suffering of others. None of us willingly seeks to enter into the loneliness of others. We fear such loneliness may result in loss of control of our own life. We feel we must be very strong to be able to help the weak and needy. We may be right about that, but we may also fail to understand the kind of help they really need. Too often we seek to do something rather than first simply learn how to be with, to be present to, the sufferer in his or her loneliness. We especially fear, if not dislike, those whose suffering is the kind for which we can do nothing.

(Hauerwas, Reader, 576-577).

When I shared that with my friend during the pandemic, I was sharing it in the context of facing depression and anxiety and how that’s been true for so many of us, but as I think about it in the context of my inability to understand our fear of heavy topics, I can’t help but think that for many of us, our politics and our ideologies are driven heavily by this problem of pain and how we can or can’t field it. And I think that’s what I’m most frustrated by.

Just thinking about all the pushback right now around “scary” terms that get thrown around about “critical race theory” or not even saying the word “gay,” or the tendency some have to scapegoat political rivals as scary enemies. We’re so afraid, some of us, of finding a healthy way to confront suffering and pain that we’ll go as far as to shun it or blame it on someone else, and our way of “dealing” with our world becomes really–more than anything else–a way to avoid as much of our world as possible.

I’m not saying all that to make a political point necessarily so much as to make a moral one: that I believe we’re charged with and responsible for dealing with the scary stuff, and I’m fully aware, despite being steeped in a lot of pretty scary, heavy stuff every day, that I doubt I’ve dealt with the truly scary stuff. Or, maybe I find it easier to deal with a certain kind of scary so I don’t have to deal with other kinds of scary. Are we all heroes in some way or another and all cowards in other ways, too?

Maybe if there were a place I could find empathy for those I disagree with it, it’s buried somewhere in this conversation. That someone’s pure hatred of others is rooted in their fear of them or fear of themselves, I can “get,” and yet, my ability to understand that doesn’t subtract from my own disgust of their hatred. If anything, it just fuels, even more, my disappointment in them, and while some do, I don’t have the time or the energy (maybe out of my own fears, ironically) to deal with their hatred in any kind of way that invites further conversation or offers any form of “unity” or “love” when hate is the path they’ve chosen. I’m a firm believer in an intolerance of intolerance to that regard.

But if I were the kind of person who encouraged us to take up hard conversations with those we disagree with in the interest of tearing away at hate, as some have done expertly well, or if I were to encourage us to tackle the hateful world of disinformation that has left some of our friends and family members brainwashed by hate and having fallen into what appears tantamount a cult, I would advise we start with the question of what people are truly afraid of, that the only way we could succeed in getting people to shed their more toxic views would be in offering them a place to be vulnerable enough to speak their wildest fears, however unfounded in reality those fears may be–and then process from there.

In the meantime, my energy won’t be on those who hate but on those who are persecuted by those who do. And I can’t promise not to overwhelm you talking about it.

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